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 … Continue reading

Lend Your Commas a Hand–or Two

Next time you wonder whether to use one comma or two to set off a word or phrase in the middle of a sentence, imagine reaching in and lifting that word or phrase out with both hands. Does the sentence still make sense? If so, lower the text back in, and put commas in place of your hands.

For example, you need both commas in all of these sentences:

  • Fruit flies, for example, can breed up to ten times an hour.
  • The TV, however, sat idle.
  • The house that Sandee likes, the one with the striped curtains and the funny gargoyle on the second story, went up for sale last week.

With certain types of words, the second comma goes missing especially often. For example, even though most style guides would call for commas on each side of the following bolded words (right where you’d put your hands), many writers would use only the first comma.

  • Macy’s, Inc., made headlines today.
  • The plane will land in Portland, Maine, right on time.
  • Rodney, Jr., has a birthday coming up.
  • The letter dated January 2, 1987, changed George’s life.

I’m not sure why second commas get omitted so often. Leaving out half of a comma pair is like leaving out a parenthesis. You wouldn’t do that (would you?

Hyphens unite!

A friend notes that the use of hyphens between adjectives seems to be going away. “Not sure why,” he says. “Hyphens make reading easier.”

I debated whether the lowly hyphen — that dinky, nonthreatening, barely there conjoiner of words — deserves a whole entry in a blog on Word Power. Is any punctuation mark less emblematic of power? A hyphen would never pull you over for speeding. When you’re choosing up teams, the hyphen is the last one to get picked. Hyphens don’t even merit sand in the face; they get ignored. Theirs is the ultimate humiliation: being left out.

But oh, when you see the hyphen for what it is, when you take the time to appreciate its unique qualities, you’ll find it a powerful ally indeed.

Example: true blue friend

The test: Say each adjective (true and blue) with the noun separately. True friend. So far so good. Blue friend. Not unless you’re talking about a Smurf. You don’t have a true and blue friend. True and blue work together as one adjective, a unit adjective. Uniting adjectives is the main thing hyphens were put on earth to do. Use the hyphen as the unifying force that it was meant to be, and you’ve got a true-blue friend.

Better examples: middle school child, ill prepared worker, light green suitcase

Huh? Is it a MIDDLE SCHOOL child or a MIDDLE school child? Are we talking about an ILL PREPARED worker or an ILL prepared worker? LIGHT… does that describe the suitcase’s color or its weight?

Of course, readers can figure these things out. But why force them to?

Should you always hyphenate a compound adjective (that is, multiple words working as one adjective) when those words directly precede a noun? Some say yes. Commonly, though, when a whole phrase, noun and all, becomes widely recognized, the hyphen disappears, and few miss it. For example, even in the language-usage-curmudgeon-filled-technical-writing world, the hyphen has all but dropped out of certain common terms, like content management system or (more controversially in the curmudgeonliest circles) quick reference card. Those who are comfortable with such omissions argue that the hyphen, for these terms and these readers, no longer has a job to do.

Unless you’re using that kind of tried-and-true term, though, give your readers the extra help that only a hyphen can.

Try this exercise in empathy. Read the following sentence s-l-o-w-l-y, and observe yourself as you read.

Stop out of control hyphen neglect.

The moment you realized that the space-separated words out and of and control wanted to be together, did your eyes zing back to the left margin like an old-fashioned typewriter carriage? Did you call forth imaginary hyphens to fill the voids and restore meaning so that you could go on?

With a little help from an undercelebrated hero, you can rescue your readers from such distress. Hyphens, unite!

(Thanks, Mark, for the inspiration for this entry.)