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

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, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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11 Responses to Hyphen-Nation Exceptions: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Random

  1. I love your reference to “inner grammar nazi”! An excellent post: you’ve managed to make a subject that is …well, less than attractive fun to read!
    I write in English (you can see the style on my blog) but I come from another mother tongue (first Swedish until I was 7, next French!). As you can imagine, I’m fascinated with language and I was pleased to learn (because I’ve come across so many mistakes) that English respects the hyphens in foreign phrases.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t always respect the original foreign phrase, like “double entente” (that’s the French as it should be) with “double entendre” which is totally wrong (that’s a verb and it simply doesn’t work grammatically for French speakers). But there you are, it’s become a habit in the English-speaking world, and double entendre stays! But of course that’s entirely another story!

    • mesummer says:

      Ooo, that would be an interesting post! I’d love to find out what other mistakes we American English speakers make with foreign phrases. Thanks for the compliment on the blog post! I do enjoy getting to nerd out about grammar now and then. :-)

  2. Good stuff here! Turns out I’ve been using hyphens with numbers incorrectly. I’d always write 10-mile run or 20-year-old woman. So now I know.

    You always have a way of taking potentially boring subjects and making them interesting. It’s a gift. 😉 Thanks!

  3. cherie says:

    Great stuff! I’m going to link you in one of my future blogpost this week–about Em Dash and En Dash. =)

  4. Your post got me wondering how much American English grammar differs from British English grammar.

    In the new world of epublishing / e-publishing one of the things I wonder, and all the moreso reading Claude’s comments, is if we are going to see a new international standard of written English emerge in the coming years.

    Time was that British English books, if intended to be published and read in the US, were adjusted to American English spellings, and sometimes phrases (Harry Potter most famously). Just the opposite for the UK and the other English-speaking (Please, God, make that hyphen be correct – MES is reading this!) nations where American books were just reprinted in their original form with a fresh cover. Much to the dismay of English teachers in the UK explaining to their students that “colour” is not spelt “color”.

    As a consequence while the Brits, Australians, New Zealanders, etc, are entirely at ease with American spellings and phrases, it’s not a two way process. Our e-book, successful in the UK, has received numerous comments from American readers struggling with our spellings and “Britishisms”.

    But now writers from almost anywhere in the world can upload their novels as written, it seems the American audience will be increasing exposed to English as written elsewhere.

    Will the ROTW increasingly adapt American spellings to take advantage of the previously inaccessible US market, or will American writers with an eye of the international market adopt the traditional English of the Old World?

    Maybe a happy medium with a new written language of Amerlish will emerge.

    • mesummer says:

      Wow, Mark! The possible effects of e-publishing on language would be a fascinating post to read.

      Personally, I think the traditional publishing world of the Americas is a little hypersensitive about us American audiences freaking out over a variation in spelling of a few words. We’re expected to wade through the old-English version of the Canterbury Tales by the time we hit high school, for heaven’s sake. I think we can cope with “theatre” and “going to the loo.”

      My hypothesis is that the world is going to get smaller and closer until we can all communicate with each other pretty easily. A lot of concessions will likely be made on the part of the ROTW, because that’s just the way we’re used to operating. But then we Americans will absorb some of the alternate expressions and spellings, until everything blends into one unified way of writing. A LOOOONG time from now. EONS. Or, like, next year.

      • I had the same thoughts as MES when I read your comment Mark. Definitely an interesting topic to ponder. It seems like social media and the Internet have created whole new terms and phrases shared by all English-speakers. Maybe we’ll have completely reformed our language at some point. Again.

  5. Pingback: Hyphen-Nation: Multiple Hyphens and Series Compounds | Sticking to the story

  6. Pingback: Grammar Blip: Hyphen-Nation | Sticking to the story

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