To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate After a Noun: That Is the Wrong Question

Updated May 24

This job is long-term.

This job is long term.

Do you need the hyphen here? Most authorities say no. Don’t hyphenate a compound modifier when it follows a noun. Before a noun, yes (This is a long-term job), but after, no (This job is long term).

Most authorities also point out exceptions. They say that some compounds (razor-sharp, risk-averse, time-sensitive, blue-green) need a hyphen even when they follow a noun. Uh-oh. Not so fast. I just checked the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. When I wasn’t looking, the authorities behind this heavyweight guide changed their minds about the hyphenation of color compounds, like blue-green: “Compound adjectives formed with color words … now … remain open when they follow the noun.”

So much for blue-green—I mean blue green—needing a hyphen after a noun.

So much for “the” right answer.

Happily, I’m seeking not a right answer but a right question. Most authorities don’t tell you that if you ask “Do I need a hyphen here?” after a noun, you’re almost always asking the wrong question. They don’t tell you what you most need to know: that a post-noun modifier almost always follows a be‑verb (is, are, was) or some other linking verb (seem, appear, become, grow). And they don’t tell you that linking verbs almost always signal an opportunity to strengthen a sentence.

So when faced with a sentence like This job is long term or That child is razor-sharp or, heaven forbid, The suit is blue-green (make that blue green), what question should you ask? This one: “What do I have to say about that long-term job, that razor-sharp child, that blue-green suit?” Eliminate the linking verb and swap in some substance, some muscle: This long-term job pays more than anyone in Joan’s family has ever made or Those razor-sharp kids speak twelve languages or Donovan thought that the blue-green suit made the professor look glamorous. Then, maybe, you’ll have yourself a sentence worth reading.

4 thoughts on “To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate After a Noun: That Is the Wrong Question

  1. Why can’t style guides explain writing like Marcia Johnston? Thank you for the good how-to guide on hyphens. I hope I got that right. 🙂

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