Hyphen-Nation Exceptions: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Random

hyphenIn our last installment of Grammar Blip, we focused on compound modifiers and when to hyphenate. As promised, here is the shiny follow-up from that discussion: the inevitable exceptions. (I can hear you all groaning out there, but it has to be done.)

To make it moderately painless (or at least possibly survivable), I’ve broken down these exceptions into categories. Let’s start with the obvious and work our way to the more obscure, shall we?

Modifier After a Noun
Okay, so now that I’ve drilled it into your heads that two words modifying a noun need to be hooked together with a hyphen, I should tell you that this is only true if the modifier comes before the noun. If the two words come after the noun, the hyphen is no longer necessary.

“Gunther is a well-read chinchilla.”

“Gunther the chinchilla is well read.”

Adverbs Ending in “ly”
I know you all are seasoned writers, and that you’d sooner be caught wearing tutus, tights, and unitards in your next board meeting than have your precious novel-in-progress besmirched by such a plebian faux pas as an adverb. But let’s say for sake of argument that you just have to have a “masterfully” amongst all your masterful prose. So for example, you could write the following:

“Johann was suspended for his masterfully played prank involving a cheese grater, a hamster, and Susan the lunch lady.”

BUT if you were to use an adverb that did not end in “ly,” you’d have to write the following:

“Johann was suspended for his well-played prank involving a cheese grater, a hamster, and Susan the lunch lady.”

You could probably get away with “well played” here. Some editors are less fastidious about hyphens, especially in terms of the word “well.” But generally speaking, there should be a hyphen there.

With Greater Use Comes Closure
As people come to use an open or hyphenated term with more frequency, it has a tendency in the language to become a closed compound. A great example of this is computer-related terminology. Believe it or not, “website” was once “Web site” and “email” was once (and still sometimes is, depending on which style guide you’re using) “e-mail.” “Online” came from “on-line” which in turn came from “being on line.” Login from log in. You get the idea.

The best thing to do when you’re not sure about a term is to check the dictionary first. If the dictionary acknowledges more than one way to handle it, then the decision is up to the document owner. In the case of your novel, that would be you. (At least until a publishing-house editor comes along and strong-arms you into his or her preferred usage.)

The Truly Random
There are handful of exceptions that are truly random. There may be a reason these constructions are exempted from the rule, but I am not grammar-nerd enough to dig it up. Here they are, in no particular order.

Chemical terms: Names of chemicals never have a hyphen, even if they are modifying a noun, e.g., calcium nitrate solution.

Foreign phrases: Phrases we’ve co-opted from other languages don’t get a hyphen, e.g., a priori assumption, unless they come from the original language with hyphens, e.g., tête-à-tête.

Numbers: Pretty much anything having to do with numbers does not get a hyphen, e.g., a 10 percent raise, type 2 diabetes, 10 km run. If a number is spelled out, though, you might run into hyphens, e.g., second-best award, a hundred-meter race, the four-twenty tradition.

Other: Proper nouns and adjectives relating to geography or nationality usually go sans hyphen as well, e.g., African American history, Middle Eastern oil.

Final Note on Exceptions
One final note about compound-modifier exceptions, and hyphens in general really, is that there’s a strong preference for using them sparingly. We’ve been talking a lot about how important it is to use them for clarity’s sake. But if clarity is not and never will be an issue, you may not need to hyphenate. In these cases, listen to your inner grammar nazi and may the force be with you.

Even more on hyphens (including exceptions)!
Hyphenation: From H to En-dash
The Correct Use of Hyphens
Compounds

Next time on Grammar Blip, the hyphen series: multiple hyphens and series compounds!

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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11 Responses to Hyphen-Nation Exceptions: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Random

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