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Compound Adjectives - Decision to Hyphenate

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Facilitate Reading

We hyphenate words to facilitate reading and prevent ambiguity. For example, one rule says to hyphenate adjectives formed by a noun plus an -ing verb when it comes before the noun. Thus:

thought-provoking article interest-bearing loan

Ordinarily, you would not hyphenate these compounds when they come after the noun. Thus:

The loan was interest bearing.

But what about:

The article was thought provoking.

Here we have an ambiguity, for the word thought could act as a verb, link to the verb was, and leave the adjective provoking all by itself:

The article was thought provoking.

But we mean thought as a noun linked to provoking to form a compound adjective. Thus we must hyphenate:

The article was thought-provoking.

In no other way, except by rewriting the sentence, can we make our meaning clear.

Check the Dictionary

When in doubt, consult the dictionary. If a compound appears in the dictionary, then spell it the way it appears there. Watch carefully for the hyphen and distinguish it from the raised period dictionaries use to show word division.

Read The Wall Street Journal

As I stated in Chapter 3 of the eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech, if you want to see usually consistent editorial work in the area of hyphenation, simply read The Wall Street Journal. On any given day, you will find scores of hyphenated words, all following the correct system of hyphenation. I personally like the system, for I believe it facilitates reading.

Here are just a few of the compound adjectives I listed in Chapter 3. These appeared on the front page of the October 19, 1994, edition of The Wall Street Journal:

15-year-old reform bread-and-butter issues educational-reform efforts information-services industry

Now flash ahead to the current century. On Tuesday, July 24, 2001, we find these correctly hyphenated compound adjectives on page C1 of The Wall Street Journal:

high-quality bonds bond-market diversification inflation-indexed Treasury bonds second-quarter labor costs

But wait! Even the mighty can flub. On the same page, in the article about Novellus's convertible securities, we find a hyphen in the compound noun short term. If the expression appeared as an adjective, then the hyphen would be correct. But I can't find any rule requiring a hyphen in the noun form:

[The company] could even make some money in the short-term from the transaction.

In the same column, a compound adjective is missing a necessary hyphen:

credit rating agencies

Perhaps I'll have to retract my statement about The Wall Street Journal's consistency in editing.


Previous: Hyphens and Compound Adjectives

Next: Made-Up Adjectives

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  • Yoobin Moon
    Yoobin Moon
    LikeReply 18 years ago


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