Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hyphens: Connect & Separate

Warning: Educational content to follow.

I love a bargain. Last month, I bought this door decoration for 50% off, plus the extra discount that Peebles gives on its monthly discount day for senior citizens. Because I like Apple computers, and because I already had an apple doormat, the apple core seemed appropriate.


The big wooden apple core is made of three sections hinged together. The hinges connect the parts while keeping them separate.

The hinges reminded me of hyphens, which also both connect and separate. We all know that hyphens are used to separate syllables in a multi-syllabic (See! There’s a hyphen!) word when the word is divided at the end of a line. But a hyphen has other uses.

Let’s take a look at hyphens in action:

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” has a contest named in his honor. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest celebrates the worst opening line for a novel that hasn’t yet been written.

(We need the hyphen to connect and separate the two names; otherwise Bulwer would seem to be Ed’s middle name, or Bulwerlytton would be hard to pronounce.)

I won the 1996 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest’s “Worst Western” division.

("Worst Western” doesn’t need a hyphen because the division is called “Worst Western.”

Consequently, I am an award-winning bad writer.

Award-winning needs a hyphen because it’s a phrasal adjective. When two words act together to modify one thing (and thus act as one word), they form a phrasal adjective.

Which is correct?
Don’t touch the red hot stove.
Don’t touch the red-hot stove.
The second sentence is correct. The phrasal adjective red-hot acts as one word. Without a hyphen, the sentence would mean a red stove that is hot.

What a difference a hyphen makes:
The whale chasing Captain Ahab was obsessed.
The whale-chasing Captain Ahab was obsessed.
Depending upon what you mean, either sentence could be correct. In the first sentence, the subject is whale. Chasing Captain Ahab is a participial phrase modifying whale. In the second sentence, the subject is Captain Ahab. Whale-chasing is a phrasal adjective modifying Captain Ahab. I love phrasal adjectives. They add color and save words.

OK, back to sentences about me:
Because I’m a Bulwer-Lytton winner, I am a nationally ranked bad writer.
Whoa! Why doesn’t nationally ranked have a hyphen? It’s not a phrasal adjective, that’s why. Nationally is an adverb modifying the adjective (actually, it’s a past participle that functions as a adjective) ranked. You don’t put a hyphen between an adverb ending in –ly and the adjective it modifies.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style says about 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. 1. Generally, if it is placed before a noun, you should hyphenate the phrase to avoid misdirecting the reader {dog-eat-dog competition}. There may be a considerable difference between the hyphenated and the unhyphenated forms. For example, compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital.
  2. 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 {video-game-magazine dispute} {college-football-halftime controversy}.
  3. 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. 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 {the choral- and instrumental-music programs}. But if two phrasal adjectives begin with a common element, a hyphen is usually inappropriate, and the element should be repeated {left-handed and left-brained executives}.
  5. 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}.
  6. 6. If a phrasal adjective becomes awkward, the sentence should probably be recast. For example, The news about the lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings disappointed investors could become The news about the third-quarter earnings, which were lower than expected, disappointed investors. Or perhaps this: Investors were disappointed by the third-quarter earnings, which were lower than expected.
If you’re not sure when to hyphenate, check here or here.

Phrasal adjectives can be handy to add color to your writing. If you use attention-grabbing, butt-kicking, lip-smacking, prize-winning, finger-pointing, eye-popping, crowd-pleasing, earth-shaking phrasal adjectives, don’t forget the hyphens.

Little things mean a lot.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Amy Hanek said...

Thanks Becky! I paid close attention to this post. I am sure I have left out the hyphens many times in the past.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Leslie Shelor said...

Excellent grammar lesson!

12:43 PM  
OpenID ecreith said...

Well said! I have been saying this stuff for years, but you've done it so well. I think I'll just point people at you...

This post made me so happy. It's a happiness-making post! :)

10:11 AM  

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