Questions on Hyphens

Question: I am having questions concerning hyphenating. Should the first two words of the following combination of words be hyphenated?

high growth companies
multiple year targets
long term incentives
multiple year targets

Then there is a statement:

long term, multiple year plan

Answer: These are all examples of "compound modifiers." A compound modifier is defined as two or more words that combine to express a single concept.

The punctuation convention is to hyphenate compound modifiers whenever they appear in phrases in which the relationship among the words might be ambiguous or confusing. In general, this principle works to produce this rule:

Hyphenate a compound modifier when it appears before a noun. Do not hyphenate a compound modifier when it appears in the predicate.

All of the examples you have supplied position the compound before the noun. It would be usual to hyphenate them all. On the other hand, in the following sentences, they would all be open:

The company has experienced high growth.
Our targets span multiple years.
Our incentives are for the long term.

This strikes many writers as inconsistent and impossibly confusing. But punctuation, you see, is less a hard-and-fast system of rules than it is a service profession. Itís not sporting to force a reader to read a phrase three times to divine the relat ionships among the words. The hyphen is a tool good writers use to speed the reader on his way. But good writers are also efficient. They donít use extra punctuation when itís not needed. Thus, the rule is to use hyphens only when they are needed for clarity.

Question (From the Internet): Should I hyphenate labor intensive?

Answer: A compound modifier should be hyphenated in a position before a noun (e.g., a "labor-intensive activity"). It should be left open in predicate adjective position (e.g., "The activity will be labor intensive."). The hyphen s erves to eliminate ambiguity in the former construction. No ambiguity is possible in the second construction, so the hyphen is useless and distracting--instead of thinking about all that work, you think about whether you're adding to the work by worrying about hyphens.

Question (From the Internet): Following the example of The New Yorker, I like to spell out most numbers. This raises the question of when (and why) to hyphenate. For example, what should I do with these?

The other readers and I thank Jill and you for your generous gift one-hundred dollars to the . . .

Answer: Stylebooks differ on their recommendations as to when a writer should abandon spelled-out numbers and move to an arabic format.

Stylebooks for publications with short deadlines and narrow column widths usually move to arabic when numbers are two digits or more (at number 10; q.v., The AP Stylebook and Libel Manual).

Stylebooks for publications with longer deadlines and wider column widths often recommend moving to arabic either when numbers begin to be hyphenated (at number 21) or when they are three digits or more (at number 100; q.v., The Chicago Manual of St yle).

As you note, many numbers under 100 are hyphenated in their spelled-out form: 21-29; 31-39; . . . 91-99 are hyphenated in any position in a sentence. Other spelled-out numbers are hyphenated only when they qualify as a compound modifier that stands bef ore a noun.

You are noticing hyphens in compound modifiers and are mistaking them for hyphens in numbers. In the example you give, one-hundred dollars is hyphenated because one-hundred is a compound adjective standing before dollars. There wou ld be no hyphen in "He lived to be one hundred." Similarly, we hyphenate a thirty-three-year-old man rather liberally, but are much more conservative about "The man was thirty-three years old."

The reason for hyphenating compound modifiers before nouns is to eliminate ambiguity. The hyphen helps the reader figure out what attaches to what. When the phrase stands in isolation, such help isn't needed.

It would take me a while to explain hyphenation of compound modifiers adequately, but hyphenation of numbers is fairly straightforward. You seem to want to adopt a literary style. If so, the rules are to spell out all numbers up to ninety-nine, and to use arabic for numbers 100 and over, unless they are round numbers used casually. In this style, no number is hyphenated unless it is embedded in a compound modifier that stands before a noun.

I know this seems terribly complicated. Does it comfort you to know that it is generally considered the most complicated and perverse issue in editorial style?

Question: Is it ever acceptable to use deers' as the plural possessive of deer in writing, as opposed to deer's, to clarify that you intend for there to be more than one deer? (For example, the deer's/deers' antlers?)

Answer: Oh dear. No, I don't think so. I've never seen this construction and would think that on the principle of equity alone the possessive deer must take the same chance at ambiguity as the plural deer.

Sometimes using the prepositional phrase has the unfortunate effect of shifting the emphasis of the sentence, but in writing there are always tradeoffs. It is probably better to shift the emphasis of the sentence a little than to form a possessive cons truction so quirky that your reader takes a ten-minute detour to the cold embrace of H.W. Fowler.

Question: I am preparing one manual, of which many will be printed, for many instructors. Sometimes one instructor does the workshop, sometimes more. With one manual and many copies, an instructor will get an instructor's manual, but will THE manual be the instructors' manual?

Answer: Each instructor receives only one manual, so the relationship is fundamentally singular. I recommend instructor's manual. This is the convention followed in academic publishing. The writing handbook distributed to all teachers of freshman English at N.C. State, for example, is called an annotated instructor's edition. It is, of course, the edition that is annotated, not the instructor.

Question: (From an undergraduate English major, writing from his summer job): In the software manual I am writing, I have administrative-level users and non-administrative(?)level users. Please tell me how to hyphenate these two te rms. The hyphen in question is, of course, where the question mark sits.

Answer: You do have a problem with a hyphen, but you have unjustly targeted the wrong one. The questionable hyphen is here:

non(?)administrative-level user

The second hyphen, the one between administrative and level, is uncontroversial. It clarifies the relationship between two adjectives that work together to form a compound modifier. When a compound modifier stands before a noun, it is hyp henated to eliminate ambiguity. Only a small businessman (not a small-business man) shops for a suit at the Mickey Rooney Outlet Mall.

The hyphen between non and administrative is more interesting. If your technology will allow it, use an N-dash (slightly longer than a hyphen, but shorter than a traditional dash). The N-dash attaches the prefix to the whole of the hyphen ated compo und adjective following. If you can't generate an N-dash, you're stuck with way too many hyphens--and an awkward construction. This dilemma leads you to a revelation (and a broad writing principle): Punctuation is a useful tool, but it can't fi x deeper pr oblems with meaning.

You can finesse your semantic problem by taking a syntactic approach and moving the compound adjective out of harm's way--into a position in the sentence where it won't take the second hyphen; e.g., "users at the administrative level . . .," but this i s a quick fix and will work only if you aren't using the phrase very much.

Ultimately, you will find that the only permanent way to solve a semantic problem is to apply a semantic solution. In short, you need to designate the categories of users more specifically. The problem with "non-administrative-level user" is not that i t's hard to hyphenate; it's that the category is too broad. Addressing the issue of audience now will give your whole manual a better focus.

Question 1: On your web page of archived questions, you responded to one about using a hyphen in compound adjectives--specifically, you stated that an N-dash>should be used in the following construction:


Answer: I am almost certain that this was not the phrase in question. Administrative user is a noun. I would not have advised anyone to hyphenate it. Are you sure the phrase wasn't something like non-administrative-level user? The compound in question ought to have been an adjective.

Question 2: While I certainly do not wish to seem like I am challenging or disputing this usage, I would really appreciate knowing the source or reference book that supports this use of the N-dash.

Answer: The source is The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, section 5.117:

The en-dash is also used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of the elements of the adjective is an open compound (such as New York) or when two or more of the elements are hyphenated compounds:

New York<N-dash>London flight

post<N-dash>Civil War period

quasi-public<N-dash>quasi-judicial body


non-English-speaking countries

not-to-be-forgotten moment

Note that non-English-speaking countries is not the same kind of usage as non<N-dash>administrative-level user--or even non<N-dash>administrative user. In non-English-speaking countries, the non attaches t o English, not to speaking. In non<N-dash>administrative-level user, the non attaches to administrative, not to level. In non<N-dash>administrative user, the N-dash attaches to administrative , not to user.

Question 3: The reason I am asking is that a colleague and I are addressing the N-dash issue at work, where we are preparing an internal style guide. We are looking for a couple good examples of using the N-dash to combine two double compounds, versus using a comma to separate two double compounds.

For example, a comma logically separates rootin'-tootin', gun-totin' cowpoke.

The only thing I can think of is where an N-dash would replace a slash, such as in an and/or or either/or construction, but I can't think of a realistic example of an and/or or either/or construction using two compound adjec tives.

Can you help?

Answer: Chicago's quasi-public<N-dash>quasi-judicial body qualifies, though I don't suppose it has much place in the Wild West, and I don't like it much. It's close to what you're looking for, but I think I'd still opt for a comma.< /P>

My real advice, however, is much more sweeping. It is this: Cease and desist. I've been an editor for twenty-five years, and I've never seen a usable in-house style guide--certainly not one that covers a level of detail as arcane as the proper use of N -dashes. If you need a style manual, review the manuals available commercially, adopt one, and stick to it. You may provide a short (no more than book-plate<N-dash>sized) list of exceptional terms that are specific to your industry. Glue it to the f lyleaf of the manual you adopt.

Do you doubt my advice? Answer this: Are you planning to index your manual? I'll bet you aren't. Now think about how you use a manual. You've been looking for the answer to your N-dash problem in all kinds of manuals. Where is the first place you look when you pick up a manual? If you say "the index" and you're not planning to provide an index, you're in trouble.

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