On compound modifiers and when to use a hyphen

https://i2.wp.com/www.vappingo.com/word-blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Hyphen.jpgBill Walsh, the Washington Post’s chatting copyeditor, has rendered an opinion on several grammatical (and other) issues that have grabbed my attention lately. One is when to use a comma in a compound modifier and when not to.

Way back in the 1970s, compound modifiers had hyphens: ice-cream cone, three-man spacecraft. In the 1990s and 2000s, a succession of editors and I imposed the same rule at The Washingtonian. We got some pushback from people who called the magazine “hyphen happy” (“hyphen-happy”?). As hyphen use fades away, it’s hard to tell where to draw the line—and stylebooks seem almost arbitrary on the matter.

That’s the background on Walsh’s first chat question recently. “It seems arbitrary to me: no hyphen for ‘grand jury investigation’ or ‘revenge porn law’ but ‘mineral-rich region’?” he or she asked. “And what are your thoughts on hyphenating ‘simple’ compound nouns (e.g., real-estate agent, high-school student). Thanks!”

I come up against this one almost daily. Since leaving my last magazine job—and my role as arbiter of grammar and style among people who actually care about such things—I admit becoming less hyphen-happy. But while some phrases read fine without a hyphen, others can be misread or just look wrong. If a stylebook is silent, do you just guess?

Here’s Walsh’s interesting reply: “That’s probably where my work practices and my personal practices differ the most. The Post would write ‘grand jury investigation,’ whereas I would write ‘grand-jury investigation.’ I even hyphenate the simple ones. Post style does not, and one of my problems with that philosophy is that it’s hard to draw the line. We’re not always consistent, and one of my goals is to come up with an easier-to-follow rationale for those pesky hyphens.”

Good point. We editors thought being called hyphen-happy was perfectly fine when we had a plain and easy-to-follow rule to follow that made the meaning clear and obvious to all. Once you start saying, “Well, not always,” editors won’t agree among themselves, and noneditors will have no idea. And there goes the neighborhood, grammatically speaking.

(Of course, we editors can stick our fingers in the dike only so long. Language changes, and eventually it will change around us. Which brings up that age-old question, should you be a prescriber or a describer?)

A commenter suggested that if the compound noun stands alone in a different context (“They eat ice cream; the grand jury will convene”), it doesn’t take a hyphen when modifying another noun. If it doesn’t otherwise stand alone (“mineral rich”), it does (“mineral-rich region”). Maybe that’s the rationale behind the Post stylebook?

I asked him those questions. Here are the answers:

“That’s a good way to decide when something like ‘mineral-rich’ absolutely must have a hyphen. It’s not a good guideline for deciding when not to hyphenate, because it takes the most anti-hyphen stance possible.

“Others will disagree, but I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional to leave ‘ham sandwich’ unhyphenated in something like ‘That was a good lunch, but it wasn’t ham-sandwich good.’ Or ‘beer gut’ in ‘One of those beer-gut dudes from Cleveland.’ You get the picture.

Post style, I’m afraid, reflects the fact that others will disagree.”

Speaking of disagreeing, here’s how yet another commenter responded: “Use them when not using them may confuse the reader. In the phrase ‘old money family,’ a hyphen isn’t needed because there isn’t such a thing as a ‘money family.’ The phrase ‘small-state senator’ needs a hyphen because there is such a thing as a ‘state senator.’ No need for the hyphens in ‘beer gut dudes’ or ‘ham sandwich good’ because the meanings are clear without hyphens.”

Yes, not confusing the reader is a main reason we have grammar. So I have to disagree with this commenter. No reader should have to spend even a second figuring out whether ‘money family’ or ‘state senator’ is a thing in those sentences. A hyphen makes it clear right away; no figuring or rereading needed.

And that is why we have (ahem) hyphen-use rules.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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