Hyphen-Nation: Multiple Hyphens and Series Compounds

It’s that time again, fellow wordsmithians, to return to the land of hyphens. Crazy as it may seem, two posts were not enough to exhaust the subject (though you may be feeling exhausted, and I wouldn’t blame you).

See, this is why hyphens are so tricky. There are almost as many different ways to use them as there are stars in a roadrunner cartoon.

Today, we’ll be talking about multiple hyphens and series compounds*.

Multiple Hyphens

Sometimes you need to use a phrase of three or more words to modify a noun, e.g., round-the-clock surveillance. “Round the clock” needs hyphens to let the reader know that the whole phrase is modifying “surveillance,” as opposed to only the word “clock.”

The same rules apply to long phrases as apply to two-word phrases. For example, you’d write “his hard-to-swallow story” if the modifying phrase comes before the noun, but “made his story hard to swallow” (no hyphens) if the phrase comes after the noun.

Here’s a tricky one for you. Do you write “forty year old virgin” or “forty-year-old virgin”?

<< waits for everyone to Google the DVD cover >>

If you answered “forty-year-old virgin,” then DING DING DING, you win the prize!** If you answered “40 year-old virgin,” then you are also right, though that wasn’t one of the options listed and you are SO busted for Google-cheating. (Speaking of Google-cheating, did you notice that different search results came back with different hyphen usage for the same movie title? Yeah. That’s why we’re doing this little exercise, my friends. We need better hyphenators on the Interwebs!)

Okay, here’s another test for you. Do you write “that scotch is fifty years old” or “that scotch is fifty-years-old”?

I know what you’re thinking. How is this different from the exercise we just did? There are two significant differences, my dears—brownie points to you if you’ve already figured it out. Difference #1: The phrase in question comes after the noun it modifies. Difference #2: There’s an ‘s’ in “years.”

Ready for the answer?


The correct answer is…wait a minute, what happened to the scotch??? Somebody drank my fifty-year-old scotch! That scotch was fifty years old, people! You don’t just drink another woman’s fifty-year-old scotch without asking! Where am I going to find another bottle of scotch that’s fifty years old??? Oh, the injustice!…

See what I did there? It’s fifty-year-old scotch, or it’s scotch that’s fifty years old. The shortcut way to memorize this rule is using that ‘s’ in “years” as an indicator. If there is an ‘s,’ then NO HYPHENS. If there isn’t an ‘s,’ then hyphenate.

Series Compounds*

So now…what the heck are series compounds?

Sometimes when you have more than one compound modifier describing a noun, and part of that compound modifier is the same for both compound modifiers, then you can omit the part that’s the same in the first compound modifier.

Just so you know, this is what your face looks like right now: O.o   (It’s kind of cute, actually.)

But never fear! I can just show you instead.

“By the time I’d reached the fourth- and fifth-draft revisions, I was just about to go nuclear on those hyphens.”

I’m essentially skipping repetition of the word “draft” in that sentence. Notice that you still need the hyphen after “fourth,” though. That hyphen is what clues the reader into the fact that “fourth” is referring to draft the same way “fifth” is.

You can also use this method with closed compounds (i.e., compounds that don’t normally have hyphens, such as “overrated”).

“Both pre- and postmodern cabbage is pretty much the same.”

But you can only use this method for compounds that share their second half. You wouldn’t, for example, write the following: “the underfed and -appreciated supermodels.” You’d have to repeat the “under” for both compound modifiers.

Well, that about wraps it up for now, lovelies. Stay tuned for our next installment of hyphenated madness in which we get insanely picky about prefixes.


*Note: Series compounds is a term I kinda made up. The rule is real, but there really isn’t a name for it, so I pulled one out of my…er, I came up with one that seemed fitting.

**The prize is my deep and everlasting respect for your mad grammar skillz.

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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12 Responses to Hyphen-Nation: Multiple Hyphens and Series Compounds

  1. Oh my,but my head is spinning with all the things I really DON’T know about hyphens…I love that you’ve explained this so well (and thoroughly), but I also realize I’ll need some extra drilling, so this marvelous post is going into my “print and keep” pile pronto.

    Thank you for taking the time to help all of us who generally passed through years of English classes staring out the window and waiting for the bell to ring :-)

    • mesummer says:

      You’re welcome! I must admit that it’s partly out of self-interest in that it makes my job as an editor lots easier if people have a better grasp on the rules. 😉

      Thanks so much for tagging along on my crazy grammar crusade. Hyphenistas unite!

  2. Hi
    You should put a space before and after an elipsis ( … ). Think of it as a seperate word. Just thought you might appreciate reminder.

    • Hey, thanks for this Dermot. I’m quite possibly over-attached to the fabulous ellipsis, and am quite sure I have not often followed the proper spacing rule you mention here. The point being , if you’re going to use it, for Pete’s sake, use it properly :-)

  3. preciseedit says:

    Actually, the reason for the two-hyphen phrase is pretty simple.

    You will usually need a hyphen when
    a. two terms are linked to modify a third term, and
    b. the first term modifies the second term.

    For example: “The three-year war.”
    Term one: “Three”
    Terms two: “year”
    Term three: “war”
    We need a hyphen because
    a. “Three” and “year” are linked to form a single expression that modifies “war,” and
    b. “Three” modifies “year.”

    (Note: If we meet the first criterion but not the second criterion, we’ll probably need an en dash, not a hyphen. Ex: “The Bush[en dash here]Kennedy education bill.”)

    This same process applies for such expressions as “three-year-old girl,” though in two parts.
    Part 1: Linking “three” and “year” as single expression with a hyphen to modify “old” (telling what is meant by “old).
    Part 2: Linking “three-year” and “old” as a single expression with a hyphen to modify “girl.”
    Thus, the first hyphen is required to create one expression from “three” and “year,” and then the second hyphen is required to create one expression from “three-year” and “old.”

    I have a slightly more comprehensive discussion of this in the article “Hyphens and Compound Adjectives”: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/hyphens-and-compound-adjectives/

  4. Pingback: En Dash vs. Em Dash: A Book Designer’s Take | Sticking to the story

  5. zstitches says:

    I just followed someone’s tweet to the en- and em-dash post (did I do that right?) and from there to here, and I kind of love you right now, because just yesterday I had an instance where I wondered how to punctuate a serial compound, and next time I’ll know how.

  6. Pingback: Hyphen-Nation Exceptions: The Good, the Bad, and the Truly Random | Sticking to the story

  7. Lana McClory says:

    Thank-you penn foster career for teaching me so many tools online! Especially grsmmar and editing. No steadmans or word three is not easy, especially on a cell phone notdellhomedesktp. Slang…

  8. Kate in PDX says:

    So, from the hyphen-crazy world of medicine, here is a predicament medical transcriptionists face every day: how to hyphenate compound adjectives when BOTH of the modifiers are themselves multiple-word phrases. For instance, cardiologists never refer to “the junction where the superior vena cava meets the right pulmonary artery.” No, they call it the “superior-mesenteric-artery-right-pulmonary-artery junction.” Now as for me, I think it needs hyphens everywhere, but my editor sent it back with only one: “superior mesenteric artery-right pulmonary artery junction.” I think that looks weird (what’s an artery-right? something capillaries fight over when blood flow is low?), but I can’t really find any references on the matter, and frankly don’t even know what to call it to look it up. Anyone want to take a stab, metaphorically, at this?

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