Submitted by siang on September 1, 2006

Hyphens conundrum

1. The much talked about question; or The much-talked-about question. If hyphenation is not required, would hyphenation make it wrong, and vice-versa.

Though I’d definitely hyphenate the following: “The much-talked-about-but-never-dealt-with question”. No?

2. I like groceries shopping; or I like groceries-shopping. Same for things like coat(-)checking, floor(-)scrubbing, etc.

How about: The groceries-shopping tedium; coat-checking etiquette; etc. Would it be okay if you don’t hyphenate them?

3. Behaviour is context dependent; or Behaviour is context-dependent. The page is content heavy; or The page is content-heavy.

Likewise, if hyphenation is required, would the lack of hyphenation make it wrong, and vice-versa.

4. The end of school vacation; or The end-of-school vacation. A not so surprising accident; or A not-so-surprising accident.

Again, the same question applies. Especially for the first case, since not hyphenating it would possibly change its meaning: The end of *the* school vacation vs. The vacation that happens at the end of school. Thus, can anyone, without hyphenating it, argue that they mean the latter?

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Sorry if I bump this after over half a decade has passed, but wouldn't the exception be that you don't hyphenate an adverb that seems to be part of an adjectival phrase? So not just the "-ly" ending, but any word that normally functions adverbially?

Also, what about comparatives and superlatives? better-known, most-used?

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Chris is right.
Hyphenate multiples word when they are used as a single modifier.
Example: "up-to-the-minute reporting"
Up to the minute describes the type of reporting.

Try substituting single-word modifiers.
Instantaneous, fast, lightning, speedy, etc.

Break it down and check each word separately.

dependent behavior vs. context behavior vs. context-dependent behavior. Dependent behavior is very different from context-dependent behavior. The hyphen keeps the description of behavior clear.


As for "heavily guarded secret," "Heavily" modifies "guarded" and "guarded" modifies "secret." No hyphens needed.

It is rarely unsightly to use hyphens properly. If you find too many of them in what you write, then I would say the problem comes from your choice of modifiers!

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I use hyphens for multi-word adjectives beofre nouns:

"a once-in-a-lifetime experience"
"context-dependent behavior"

(Exception: don't put hyphens after -ly: "heavily guarded secret", but not "heavily-guarded secret")

I don't use them after nouns, though:

"behaviour is context dependent"

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Woodrow Wilson called the hyphen 'UnAmerican' (Lynne Truss). (Or was it Un-American?)

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I agree with you Aubrey, except that "grocery" in "grocery store" is also a noun, just like "groceries". Since "the horse is out of the barn", would you object to taking him to a "horse doctor"?

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I would hyphenate all those examples. However, in standard American English I would not write groceries-shopping trip. It would be grocery-shopping trip. Growing up, I was taught not to use nouns as adjectives. There is always an adjectival form or a quasi-possessive to use. However, that horse is out of the barn and singular nouns have been used as adjectives increasingly in the past half-century. Recently, plural nouns as adjectives have become common.

I won't like it but I can't change it!

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I would only use hyphens when there's a clear ambiguity, as Tamara says. Especially for online text, email, and word processors, excessive hyphenation should be avoided as it is likely to look very ugly and lead to confused line breaks and big patches of white space (even in properly typeset material it is unattractive).

I have to say that "The much-talked-about-but-never-dealt-with question" is so ungainly that you can punctuate it however you like, with little pictures of fish at either end if it pleases you, and it'll never be right. Surely "The question, much talked about but never dealt with, is..." If you're that fond of compound words you should perhaps start writing in German!

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I think the problem is, that while many of us can see a good argument for hypenating things this way, it is rare for us to do so in our own writing. (I *do* think the hypen is necessary in things like groceries-shopping tedium and end-of-school vacation, since meaning is changed without them.)

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In so far as I can perceive, nowadays(or now-a-days) the usage of hyphens has drastically comedown. From the various examples you have cited I guess usage of too much of hyphens to join and make up a meaning of the words, isn't that much of an appeal. Yes,but in certain cases we may emply them and these are generally based on the comfort level!

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No comments from anyone?

At least you can vote for the style you'd write in? Personally I'd go for all the hyphenated ones I proposed, though I wanna know if it's just me being pedantic about the use of hyphens, or maybe someone feels equally irked by its lack thereof.

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