Hyphenating compound words

Phil W. (of Brandywine Books fame) writes:

I have a question about compound words. I understand that using compounds as modifiers requires a hyphen, e.g. our decision-making process, but my organization often uses compounds as nouns, e.g. disciple-maker or “Editing this document has been gut-wrenching.” Should I hyphenate all of these compounds? Is there a clear rule to follow?

Ah, the hyphen, and the eternal question: When to use it, when to omit? Phil actually has two different cases above: Compound words and phrasal adjectives.

Hyphens and compound words

With compound words, I’m afraid that it’s a situation rather like the Pirates’ Code, as explained by Captain Barbossa in The Pirates of the Caribbean: “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

For a compound word used as a noun, the question of whether it should be hyphenated is best answered by a dictionary. If it doesn’t appear in a dictionary, then use a hyphen if it helps reduce ambiguity.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, English has three different types of compound nouns: Open, hyphenated, and solid or close.

An open compound is a combination of words that constitute a single idea, but are spelled as separate words. Examples include mother tongue, loony bin, and lowest common denominator.

A hyphenated compound is a combination of words that constitute a single idea that are spelled with a hyphen (or hyphens), such as vice-president and mother-in-law.

And then there are solid or close compounds, where the words are squished together, without spaces or hyphens. For example: newspaper, congressman, and paintbrush.

When I searched Dictionary.com, there were no dictionary results for the open (disciple maker), hyphenated (disciple-maker), or solid (disciplemaker) forms, so it appears that that particular concept isn’t used widely enough to merit its own definition. If it were me, I would use the open form, with a space and no hyphen–disciple maker. The hyphen seems unnecessary.

Hyphens and phrasal adjectives

In the second example Phil gave above–“Editing this document has been gut-wrenching”–gut-wrenching is, of course, a phrasal adjective; that is, it is a phrase that modifies a noun. (Here, it is modifying the word editing). The guidelines in American English are that you hyphenate a phrasal adjective when it precedes the noun, but not when it follows the noun. So, the hyphen appears or disappears depending on the sentence order. The original sentence should be if “Editing this document has been gut wrenching.” If you were to rearrange the sentence to have the phrasal adjective precede editing, it should be hyphenated: “The document required some gut-wrenching editing.”

Update, 6 January 2011: Someone came to the this blog using the search phrase “do you hyphenate disciple making process.” The answer is: Yes, you do. In this case, disciple-making is a phrasal adjective.

Also, I neglected to mention something about the guidelines for hyphenating phrasal adjectives: Don’t add a hyphen after a word that ends in -ly. For example, you don’t need to add a hyphen to the phrase highly unlikely event in the sentence “In the highly unlikely event of a zombie lemming attack, don’t lose track of your towel.”

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4 Responses to Hyphenating compound words

  1. Phil W says:

    Thanks, Roy. Sorry to mix my examples. I need to read more grammar rules and guidelines.

    • KS says:

      Some grammar wizards argue that phrasal adjectives should be hyphenated when following the infinitive “to be”. For example, “This story is gut-wrenching.” Any opinion?

  2. DG says:

    How do you hyphenate this triple-barrelled adjective?: Non Anglo Saxon Migrants

  3. Tom says:

    A native French speaker just asked me a question, which led to my confusion. The actual example was “mutation accumulation rate” —a little technical. But in general, I decided that I frequently didn’t know if particular cases were compound nouns, or a noun with a phrasal adjective. “mutation accumulation rate” vs. “mutation-accumulation rate” I guess that there need to be at least three words involved, for this to become a problem.

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