The last thing I will ever write about hyphenation

January 2, 2004

As Phillip Blanchard would say, this is simple: If adding a hyphen to a compound modifier makes something more clear or more accurate, then add it. If leaving the hyphen out makes it inaccurate, then for God’s sake put it in there.

The key point is: adding a hyphen must add meaning. If it’s not adding meaning it’s just taking up space. If you want go around hyphenating “peanut-butter sandwich” and “middle-school teacher” and other stuff that’s crystal clear without the hyphen, the best I can say is you’re not doing any harm. But you’re not doing any good either.

3 Responses to The last thing I will ever write about hyphenation

  1. mike on January 2, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    Personally-this-is-my-pet-peeve. Thank-you-for-hitting-the-nail-on-the-hyphenated-head!

  2. Bill on January 7, 2004 at 10:11 am

    I’ll admit that I’m more hyphen-obsessed than most, but the “meaning” argument doesn’t hold water. “Five day event,” to cite just one example, is perfectly clear without the hyphen, but it’s wrong.
    “Peanut butter sandwich” is more debatable, but there, too, a hyphen plays a role. You’re reading along about somebody eating peanut, and then he’s eating butter, and then he’s eating sandwich, and then you have to backtrack and do the work of the hyphen that should have been there in the first place.

  3. tom on January 7, 2004 at 10:26 am

    C’mon Bill, you’re carrying this to the point of absurdity. “Five day” is a clear candidate for hyphenation because it is unambiguously a compound modifier, so the rule takes precedence.
    You’re looking for reasons to put hyphens in, and I’m looking for reasons to take them out. In the case of “peanut butter” we’re talking about a thing people recognize … a noun plain and simple … you could hyphenate but you’d be doing it to feed your hyphen jones rather than help the reader out. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to help out the idiots who can’t put peanut and butter together and see peanut butter, but I suspect most of our readers are smarter than that.
    The problem w/hyphens is there will always be times when it’s unclear what to do. The Chicago Trib hyphenates “Chicago area” as a compound modifier, yet out here we do not in reference to Bay Area. I think if you say it’s OK to leave the hyphens out of noun compounds, you have one less ambiguity to deal with.