Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 2}

In part one of this series, we introduced hyphenated compound adjectives, and discussed the historical use of hyphens, the dehyphenation trend, and general rules.  Now we come to the exceptions to the rules.

Every grammar book’s list of exceptions is a little different. In general, however, exceptions tend to fall into three major categories:

  1. Open compounds
  2. Adverb/adjective combinations
  3. Predicate adjectives


1. Open Compounds

Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 2}An open compound is a group of words that has been adopted into the English language as a unit, using a space instead of a hyphen. For example, high school is an open compound. It can be used as a modifier in the phrase high school student with no need for the hyphen because the average reader is already accustomed to thinking of high school as a unit.

Most grammar guides consider proper nouns and foreign phrases as exceptions to the hyphenation rule because they are not likely to cause confusion. The reason, however, that such phrases are not confusing is because they are in a sense open compounds, as well. For example, South Dakota is a unit, and so is ad hominem. Therefore South Dakota family does not require hyphenation, and neither does ad hominem attack.

Another caution found in many references is that an open compound used as part of a longer phrase must be hyphenated. While high school student needs no hyphen, after-high-school plans does. Please note, however, that long hyphenated strings involving proper nouns are sometimes frowned upon. For example, some experts would consider South-Dakota-family-run business a hideous anomaly in desperate need of rephrasing. Rewording the phrase to a business run by a South Dakota family would be considered preferable.

Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 2}So are all the experts agreed on the proper way to handle open compounds? Not exactly. While most agree on the basics outlined above, there are a few (very few) dissenters, and a few complications, as well. As far as the dissenters go, there are some who believe that a reader theoretically could misinterpret high school student if they tried hard enough. This is a fairly uncommon objection, however. As far as the complications go, the only way to know for certain if a given phrase is an open compound is to check the dictionary. That is an exercise that could lead to some surprises. For example, fast food is an open compound, right? Yes, when used as a noun. So why is fast-food restaurant hyphenated? It’s anyone’s guess.


2. Adverb/Adjective Combinations

Now to return to our weakly creaking chair. Should weakly creaking be hyphenated or not?

If this post had been written sometime in the early 1800s, the phrase might have been hyphenated. However, this is the 21st century. Therefore, it is not.

There actually is some logic to the modern convention with regard to this subject. In the sentence above, weakly is an adverb modifying creaking, not an adjective modifying chair. Nor does weakly work together with creaking as one unit to describe chair.

This is probably why most grammar references say something to the effect that a compound adjective beginning with an adverb ending in -ly should not be hyphenated. But perhaps this exception is complicating the issue a bit. On closer examination, it would appear that such a “compound adjective” really isn’t a compound adjective at all!

This exception has led to some confusion on the part of well-meaning writers who then refuse to hyphenate anything ending in -ly, even if it is an adjective. For example, burly-bodied sailor should be hyphenated even though burly ends in -ly. Burly is an adjective, not an adverb. Furthermore, it is needed to make some sense of the word bodied, which cannot stand alone to modify sailor. The two must work together to form one grammatical unit.

Here, however, we must make note of an exception. If the adverb/adjective combination is part of a longer phrase, it is hyphenated. Thus Garner’s Modern American Usage says that while hotly contested race is not hyphenated, not-so-hotly-contested race is. (One can’t help but to wonder why, based on grammatical purpose, it wouldn’t be not-so-hotly contested race.)


3. Predicate Adjectives

Now we come to a very messy topic—compound adjectives that also happen to be predicate adjectives. Prepare yourself.

There are two schools of thought on the hyphenation of predicate adjectives. The first camp says that if the compound adjective does not stand before the noun it modifies, there is no need to hyphenate it because it is not likely to be confusing. The white-faced old man is hyphenated, but the old man was white faced is not. Simple enough, right? Maybe not. Evidently the hyphen is an integral part of some compound adjectives. For example, old-fashioned is always hyphenated no matter where it stands in the sentence. The only way to know for sure is to look at the dictionary. (And all experts caution that if there is any possibility of ambiguity, you should definitely use the hyphen.)

The second camp consists of those who insist on hyphenating predicate adjectives just like any other compound adjectives. After all, in the example above, white-faced is still serving the same function no matter where it is placed in the sentence.


Additional Resources

Using Hyphens
More general rules where hyphens are joiners.

Hyphens Between Words Quiz
OK, how well can you do?

Hyphens With -ly Words Quiz
More practice.

Worksheet 9: Hyphens
Make the meaning clear by adding hyphens correctly.