Thursday, July 19, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Dr. Joan Magat, a law professor at Duke, wants you to know that hyphens matter, and they are too often underused. For years she has tried to convince the editors at Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD that the phrase should be “legal-writing document” rather than “legal writing document.” And that lawyers who work with clients who have been charged with crimes are “criminal-defense attorneys,” rather than “criminal defense attorneys.” The latter isn’t distinguishable from someone trying to describe one of those specialists who themself was convicted of a crime. That lawyer would be a “criminal defense attorney.” See the problem? Although she often finds herself on the losing side of these battles, Joan Magat isn’t wrong.
Her 2014 article, Hawing Hyphens in Compound Modifiers explains as it proves her point. Although she thanked and dedicated the article to her fellow-editor colleagues, its brevity and clarity offers an argument for all lawyers.
The base rule is easy to remember: compound adjectival-modifiers preceding a noun should be hyphenated. It easy to apply it consistently. Exception exist for phrases in italics, quotes, and proper nouns. Yet, to Professor Magat’s woe, too often writers omit the hyphen, mimicking some of the familiar-but-unhyphenated phrases like “high school student” or “sales tax increase.” She rejects the entries in The New York Times Manual on Style and U.S. Government Printing Office’s Manual of Style, both of which advise against hyphens when the meaning is clear without them. It is up to the writer to determine what might be clear or unclear to the reader. The MLA Style Manual, in contrast, takes the opposite approach and instead requires hyphens to prevent a misreading. Only commonly unhyphenated phrases are excepted. There is much less guesswork involved.
Dr. Magat parses “pointless” from “helpful,” and shrugs off the critique that unexpected hyphens will distract readers. She pushes back, saying that hyphens are unlike scare quotes, exclamation points, or em-dashes used to excess. Rather, the hyphen smooths the way for readers because at times it can become difficult to tell what’s the noun and what’s the modifier. Think about the phrase “common law practice” for a moment. What is that? It could be one of two things. A hyphen could clear it up.
The article ends with a lovely appendix, providing advice about hyphenating compound modifiers. For that alone, the article is worth the thirty-second download time.