Grammar Blip: Hyphen-Nation

hyphenThere’s lots to do with hyphens that I see in my daily job/life that is just horribly awry. Which is why I’ve picked it as my next grammatical topic du jour. But in the interest of keeping these Grammar Blips as blip-like as possible, I’ll break up the subject into several posts. All caveats apply to this post. Please do not shoot the messenger.

Let’s start with the worst offender, shall we? Compound modifiers.First, what is a compound modifier? It’s a multiple-word phrase that describes a noun. Okay now, see what I did there? I used the words “multiple” and “word” to describe the noun “phrase.” And do you see that little hyphen in there? That tells the reader that the words “multiple” and “word” are working together to describe the word “phrase.”

Let’s look at it without the hyphen: “It’s a multiple word phrase that describes a noun.”

Not bad, not bad. You could probably deduce the meaning by reading the rest of the sentence. But there’s another way to read it as well. I’ll show you what I mean in the next example.

“Quick! My wereshitzu has just been bitten by a sparkly bat! We have to rush him to the small animal hospital!”

All right, let’s take a closer look at that “small animal hospital.” We’re probably all thinking that the author means “small animal hospital,” right? Because she’s talking about a shitzu. But it’s a WERE-shitzu, so maybe it’s actually rather largeish, like pony-sized. And maybe she just doesn’t want to have to wait for an available vet. Maybe she meant a “small animal hospital.” How do you really know without the hyphen?

So here’s a couple more examples to give you a feel for compound modifiers and when you might use them in your own writing.

“Jezibel’s sexy-devil outfit seemed a bit brazen for Mario’s funeral.”

“Why, yes, it is a high-quality sperm bank.”

“If I don’t get that much-needed vacation, I may just shove my laptop into the nearest trash compactor.”

“Harper lives in a third-floor apartment, which she picked for the open floor plan and the fabulous view into the Calvin Klein-underwear model’s apartment across the courtyard.”

Two quick things about that last example:

1. “Open floor plan” — Note that “floor plan” is itself a noun. If you don’t believe me, feel free to look it up in your nearest dictionary. Because the “floor” and “plan” go together, there should NOT be a hyphen between “open” and “floor.” Unless you’re talking about a trapdoor add-on.

2. “Calvin Klein-underwear model” — Notice there is no hyphen between “Calvin” and “Klein.” This is not an oversight. If the first part of the compound modifier is a multiple-word phrase by itself, then the hyphen goes between this phrase and the second half of the compound modifier.

In our next installment of Hyphen-Nation, which I know you are all dying to read, we will talk about all the EXCEPTIONS to this rule. But for now, just remember that when in doubt, get the dictionary out. And always, always err on the side of clarity of meaning.

More on hyphens!

Hyphenated Words: A Guide

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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10 Responses to Grammar Blip: Hyphen-Nation

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