May 10, 2011
A great primer on the proper use of hyphens
This comes to us from the popular ATL column "Small Firms, Big Lawyers," by Jay Shepherd. Hyphens, not to be confused with dashes, are basically used in two instances: as prefixes and for compound adjectives. From Mr. Shepherd:
The two main areas where hyphenation questions arise are compound (or phrasal) adjectives and prefixes. Most people fail to hyphenate compound adjectives, and most people put hyphens after prefixes. And most people are wrong both times.
Here’s the rule: if two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun that follows, those words (excluding the noun) should be hyphenated. Thus, you hyphenate special-interest money, but only because money is part of the phrase; if you were referring to this or that special interest, a hyphen would be wrong.
So you write high school, but high-school student. (Otherwise, you might momentarily think that the student had been inhaling.) It’s popular music, but popular-music critic. (Otherwise, you might think it’s the critic who’s popular, not the music.) It’s to spare your reader these momentary false starts — what Garner calls “miscues” — that we use hyphens. As Garner puts it, it’s all about having empathy for your reader, and “to make reading easier and faster.” Many writers bristle at peppering their writing with all those hyphens, thinking that they’re cluttering up their writing with little black lines. Garner disagrees: “Some writers — those who haven’t cultivated an empathy for their readers — would omit all those hyphens.”
There are a few exceptions to the phrasal-adjective rule (see what I did there?). If the phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly, you don’t hyphenate (for example, the rapidly falling temperature). If the phrasal adjective is borrowed from a foreign language, no hyphen (prima facie case). If the phrasal adjective is a proper noun, no hyphen (United States Government). And if the phrasal adjective follows the noun, it’s usually not hyphenated (a much-needed solution but the solution was much needed). Your dictionary will tell you if the phrase is always hyphenated. Use an excellent dictionary like the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is available free on every Mac. Don’t use Microsoft Word’s junky spell-checker dictionary.
The other main area for hyphens is with prefixes. The general rule is simple: don’t hyphenate after prefixes. Thus pretrial, noncompete, antiterrorism, postjudgment, and coworker; not pre-trial, non-compete, anti-terrorism, post-judgment, and co-worker. There are two main exceptions. One is when the noun or adjective after the prefix is a proper name: anti-American, post-Bush, pre-Vichy. The other is where the lack of a hyphen would create confusion, either because of strange vowel combinations (anti-inflammatory, extra-administrative, co-opt), or because it would look like a different word without the hyphen (re-sign vs. resign, co-op vs. coop).
To learn about a couple of esoteric exceptions as well as get a list of some writing resources, click on this link to read the rest of the column.
May 10, 2011 | Permalink