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The Use of the Hyphen in Compound Modifiers

Peter Gawn
(Terminology Update, Volume 7, Number 8, 1974, page 1)

Is a hyphen necessary in a compound modifier that precedes the word it modifies, and if so, are there exceptions?

I will use the following examples:

(a) He was a hard working man.
(b) This is a badly written text.
(c) She had a three-year old boy.

The consensus of the authorities is well expressed by Fowler, who says that "hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may" (The King’s English, p. 284), and that "the infinite variety of modern English usage in the matter defies description" (MEU, p. 255). Nevertheless, he points out that "the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood…" (ibid.), and goes on to devote six columns to discussing it. Like most punctuation, the hyphen serves to avoid ambiguity and promote easy reading: as such, it is one of the means the thoughtful writer uses to show his courtesy and consideration towards his reader. Courtesy to the reader, as Quiller-Couch eloquently affirmed, is an obligation that rests on the writer.

There are many aspects to the use of hyphens: I shall restrict my remarks to their inclusion in compound modifiers used in attribution, that is in two or more words combined to qualify a noun that they precede, like those shown in the example. Example (a) is a typical if simplified case. Omission of the hyphen leads to a fleeting, if not permanent misunderstanding, ambiguity or absurdity. "The first air dropped hydrogen bomb…," "She regularly attended the end of term parties," "He sent a shoulder high shot past Laplante" (from Carey, p. 82). Of course, the hyphen is seldom needed when these modifiers are used in predication, after the word they qualify: "The man was hard working," and so on. As a preliminary rule, however, we can say that hyphens are generally required in compound modifiers that precede the word they modify.

Example (b) is typical of an exception derived from the feeling expressed by Fowler that hyphens should be done without when possible. Adverbs cannot qualify nouns, and there is little danger of misunderstanding what the adverb in the expression "a badly written text" refers to since a "badly text" is impossible. This exception holds good when the adverb is clearly recognizable as such, as all those ending in -ly generally are. Problems can arise with other adverbs: "an ill behaved boy," "a wide open window" (from Wood, p. 112), when they could be confused with the same word used adjectivally (an ill boy, a wide, open window). Once again, if placed after the word they qualify, no hyphen is required: "the boy was ill behaved." We can now add a rider to our preliminary rule, namely that a hyphen is not required when there is no possibility of misunderstanding e.g. with adverbs ending in -ly. (Beware, however, of writing phrases such as: "Arguing dogmatically held concepts…" where the slight hesitation in understanding betrays a lack of courtesy to the reader).

Example (c) illustrates a pitfall for the timid hyphener: a second hyphen is required to give the mother a "three-year-old boy" rather than a "three year old-boy," whatever that might be. Hence a second preliminary rule: use as many hyphens as are required.

Some authorities analyse compound modifiers into their components and specify which combinations require hyphens and which can dispense with them. Remarkably useful in this respect is the Reference Manual for Stenographers and Typists. Space precludes my itemizing the many combinations of adjectives, adverbs, nouns, participles, numbers and their hyphens dealt with there, and in Bernstein, Perrin and Wood. But as you can see, there is no lack of guidance in this matter.

Five special hyphen problems must be considered, if only summarily. First, the suspensive hyphen, found in expressions like "pre- and post- operative care," "a series of single and two-volume studies" and "speech and language impaired children." Strictly speaking, the second and third expressions should be hyphenated like the first, but the desire to do away with hyphens when they are not absolutely necessary, and the unsightly appearance of the unattached hyphen, lead to their omission. Quirk says of the third example that "the hyphen is omitted after language since this would entail one after speech as well, a type of ellipsis indication reserved for rather stiff and technical writing" and Fraser writes that the unattached hyphen as a "slovenly" look, that the expressions should be written out ("speech-impaired and language-impaired children") and that it would be better still to recast the sentence (Plain Words, p. 184): this last, I think, is the best advice.

The second special problem is similar — what Bernstein calls the locked-in hyphen where it is the first element rather than the second that applies to both terms, e.g. "mass-produced and -distributed radiation meters" (p. 368). The same remarks apply, the best course being to rephrase the sentence, or else write out both modifiers in full.

The third problem is with double-barrelled names used attributively with other names e.g. "the Montreal-New York flight," "the Nova Scotia-British Columbia air race," "the Harold Wilson-Richard Nixon talks." Wherever hyphens are placed in these expressions ("the Montreal-New York flight"), the result is not satisfactory: the solution, suggested by Follett and Fowler, is to rewrite using a preposition "the Montreal to New York flight" or conjunction "the Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon talks." As Gavin points out (op. cit. p. 127), a hyphen is not necessary between the elements in a proper name ("a Supreme Court decision" ), so that it is quite acceptable to write "the New York flight."

The fourth problem, which is comparable, relates to well-known compounds, such as life insurance and real estate. Because they are easily grasped as a unit, Gavin (ibid.) maintains that they do not require a hyphen, e.g. "a life insurance policy," "a real estate agent," "an income tax return." The trick here of course is deciding whether the compound is sufficiently well known to stand without the hyphen.

The fifth and final problem is a compound modifier comprising a phrase or expression of more than two words, e.g. "a take it or leave it policy." Here says Wood (p. 112), hyphens are essential ("a beggar-my-neighbour attitude").

We noted that the first three special problems could be resolved by rewriting the expressions to avoid the awkward hyphening. This suggests a third preliminary rule: avoid ugly hyphens if you can.

Although incomplete, I hope this survey will alert you to the difficulties, and lead you to give compound modifiers careful thought whenever you use them.

It has been said that if you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad (Perrin, p. 646). That may be so: but if you don’t take them seriously you’re sure to write bad.

To summarize, compound modifiers require hyphens when they precede what they modify, unless misunderstanding is impossible. Use as many hyphens as are necessary. Avoid ungainly hyphening by rewriting.


Bernstein:The Careful Writer, T.M. Bernstein, Atheneum NY, 1968.
Carey: Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey, Penguin, 1971.
Follett: Modern American Usage, R. Follett, Grosset & Dunlap, 1970.
Fowler: The King’s English, H.W. & F.G. Fowler, OUP, 1962.
Gavin: Reference Manual for Stenographers and Typists, Canadian Edition, R.E. Gavin and Sabin, McGraw Hill, 1970, pages 124-131.
GCE: A Grammar of Contemporary English, Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartik, Longman, 1972.
MEU: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, Second Edition, OUP, 1965.
OED: Oxford English Dictionary.
Perrin: Writers Guide and Index to English, P.G. Perrin, Scott Forseman, 1968.
Plain Words: The Complete Plain Words, E. Gowers & B. Fraser, HMSO, 1973.
Plain Words: The Complete Plain Words, E. Gowers & B. Fraser, HMSO, 1973.
Wood: Current English Usage, A Concise Dictionary, F.T. Wood, Macmillan, 1963.