Karen’s Conundrum – That Highfalutin Hyphen

At a recent CWG critique session, one of the members asked me about hyphenation and if there were any pearls of wisdom I could impart about identifying when phrasal adjectives are hyphenated, and when they are one or two words. At first blush I thought this was a moderately simple question. I answered the query with a promise of a well-detailed, low-maintenance, all-inclusive blog post dedicated to the seemingly innocent, childlike hyphen.

With that bald assertion made, I hightailed it to my office, ready to attack this self-imposed project with quasi ease. And that’s when the truth hit me—bull’s-eye—

Karen's Conundrum Logo

That Highfalutin Hyphen

(a.k.a. That Pretentious, Pompous, Pain-in-My-Butt Hyphen)

What I found amidst The Chicago Manual of Style’s overwhelming lists of rules and exceptions (with their titles in boldface), was that I had once again told myself a barefaced lie, and now I had to make good on my promise or say good-bye to the veracity of my word.  As a copy editor who would like to continue to copyedit, whether on a part-time basis, full time, or at halftime, I knew I would have to be a highflier and tackle this high-wire act until it was over with.

So all weeklong I attempted to make some sense of the rules for hyphenating and their exceptions. I truly was hell-bent on breaking the code so that I could, with well-intended clarity, pass on reliable information and everyone would benefit from the payoff.

Once again, I had opened Pandora’s box and was facing a never-ending conundrum. I’ll tell you up front that I was underwhelmed to learn that all “under” words are one word. With out-front honesty, I didn’t have to try hard not to overreact when my investigation proved that all “over” words are one word (unless you like your eggs cooked over easy).  After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

I searched high and low for a simple way to present the high-and-mighty rules of hyphenating. I poured myself a cup of high-test coffee, highlighted page after page in my CMoS, suffered moments of low-spiritedness and feeling a bit like a lowlife in the aftermath of the low-level low blow this high-class hyphen dealt me.

A longtime, long-distance friend who has endured a lifetime of my long-winded, long-drawn-out monologues, both spoken and written in longhand, told me in no uncertain terms that the long and the short of it is that for the short haul, eliciting some basic shortcuts to help others short-circuit the rigors of navigating CMoS would not shortchange them of the facts, nor would it be shortsighted. For long-term reference, however, everyone should have a style manual (CMoS) and an unabridged dictionary (Webster’s) at the ready.

With my friend’s clear-cut, no-nonsense advice still ringing in my ears, I will now share some rules that are not too ambiguous and hold true the majority of the time. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary provides many comprehensive lists that help when dealing with prefixes, such as non- and pre-.

Later in this post, you will find a link to CMoS’s Section 7.85, Hyphenation guide for compounds and words formed with prefixes. It is a ten-page guide that is worthy of printing. At the beginning of the guide CMoS explains that “Compounds formed with prefixes are normally closed, whether they are nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. A hyphen should appear, however, (1) before a capitalized word or a numeral, such as sub-Saharan, pre-1950; (2) before a compound term, such as non-self-sustaining, pre-Vietnam War; (3) to separate two i’s, two a’s, and other combinations of letters or syllables that might cause misreading, such as anti-intellectual, extra-alkaline, pro-life; (4) to separate the repeated terms in a double prefix, such as sub-subentry; (5) when a prefix or combining form stands alone, such as over- and underused, macro-and microeconomics.”

Another CMoS section that I found to cover the subject in an all-encompassing manner is:

5.91 Phrasal adjectives.  “A phrasal adjective (also called a compound modifier) is a phrase that functions as a unit to modify a noun. A phrasal adjective follows these basic rules: (1) Generally, if it is placed before a noun, you should hyphenate the phrase to avoid misdirecting the reader {dog-eat-dog competition}.  … (2) If a compound noun is an element of a phrasal adjective, the entire compound noun must be hyphenated to clarify the relationship among the words {time-clock-punching employees}. (3) If more than one phrasal adjective modifies a single noun, hyphenation becomes especially important {nineteenth-century song-and-dance numbers}{state-inspected assisted-living facility}. (4) if two phrasal adjectives end in a common element, the ending element should appear only with the second phrase, and a suspension hyphen should follow the unattached words to show that they are related to the ending element {middle- and upper-class operagoers}.  … (5) If the phrasal adjective denotes an amount or a duration, plurals should be dropped. For instance, pregnancy lasts nine months but is a nine-month pregnancy, and a shop open twenty-four hours a day requires a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule. The plural is retained only for fractions {a two-thirds majority}. “

Further in this section, CMoS points out: “There are exceptions for hyphenating phrasal adjectives: (1) If the phrasal adjective follows a verb, it is usually unhyphenated—for example, compare a well-trained athlete with an athlete who is well trained. (2) When a proper name begins a phrasal adjective, the name is not hyphenated {the Monty Python school of comedy}.  (3) A two-word phrasal adjective that begins with an adverb ending in –ly is not hyphenated {a sharply worded reprimand}.”

CMoS-Hyphenation Guide

Now, once again, I end a post with a conundrum having reached only the semifinals. We will add “That Highfalutin Hyphen” to the ever-growing list of conundrums waiting to be revisited. If you have a specific hair-pulling, nail-biting hyphenation situation that’s left you nonplussed, don’t be self-conscious. Please post a comment and I will make an all-out effort to solve your personal all-consuming, all-evasive conundrum.

“Anybody who mistook her quiet, gentle demeanor for weakness was a bald-faced fool. The things she accomplished before the sun came up would make heads spin …” ~ Queenisms™