One of my pet peeves is the rampant omission of hyphens in professional writing. Note that I’m talking about professional writing: paid blog posts, newspapers, books, academic journal articles, marketing materials, policy briefs. I really couldn’t care less what you do in your social-media statuses or texts. If you’re writing for pay, though, it makes sense to be more careful about what you’re doing.
Professionally edited text in books, newspapers and magazines will almost always hyphenate phrases like five-year-old boy, small-government conservatives and well-known author. Using these hyphens makes your meaning clear. Leaving them out can confuse your readers because it’s not obvious how you’re grouping the adjectives.
Phrasal-adjective hyphenation is not dependent on the variant of English you use; British, American, Canadian and Australian style guides all recommend hyphenating phrasal adjectives. Look carefully at the hyphenation patterns in The Economist, The Washington Post or The Atlantic. (The Guardian is an outlier and only hyphenates phrasal adjectives in ambiguous cases or short phrases like three-hour wait.)
- well-known author
- old-fashioned ideas
- civil-rights advocates
- eighty-year-old books (remember to use hyphens after both the number and the time word)
- orange-faced, loud-mouthed politician
…Speaking of orange-faced, loud-mouthed politicians, this xenophobia- and conspiracy-theory-laden Trump tweet from 28 December 2018 shows an example of what not to do; he wrote “profit making operation” instead of the correct “profit-making operation.” (He also confused loose for lose, but that’s beyond the scope of this post…)
- Note that hyphenation rules don’t apply to proper names if the name of an organisation or company omits the phrasal-adjective hyphen. The disability-rights organisation Self Advocates Being Empowered (SABE) come to mind. Since it’s a proper name, you shouldn’t add a hyphen; personal and organisational preferences supersede the usual rules.
- You should also avoid hyphenating phrases that end in -ly, since it’s clear that they’re modifying the word that comes immediately after it. It’s a clearly defined phrase, not a clearly-defined phrase. If it were well-defined, however, it would take a hyphen.
- This rule applies only to multi-word adjectives that come directly before a noun in most cases. You’d say a fifty-year-old woman, but the woman was fifty years old.
Am I perfect at this? Certainly not, mostly because I keep wondering whether I’m being too fussy by adhering strictly to this rule. I often wonder if I sound like a stuffed-shirt pedant when I follow rules too strictly; because of these worries, I’ll sometimes take liberties on social media to seem more approachable. If I’m writing professionally or editing someone else’s writing, however, my inner stickler comes out in force.
References (not exhaustive)
- Bryan Garner (2016), Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th Edition.
- The Economist Style Guide, 11th Edition.
- The Guardian Style Guide
- Grammar and Style in British English
- While Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography was primarily intended to help make writers make good typographic choices, it does also cover punctuation from an American perspective. (The hyphenation rules he lists out are NOT US-specific, though.)