Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 1}

Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 1}
Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 1}

Hyphenated compound adjectives?

You’ve seen these; it’s exactly what the name says—a compound word with all of its constituent parts linked with hyphens to form a single adjective. For example, in the phrase a weak-legged chair, weak-legged is a hyphenated compound adjective. The hyphen is used to show that the words weak and legged are acting as one unit. This unit modifies the word chair. Simple enough, right?

But are you sure that you always know when you need to hyphenate? Weak-legged chair may seem obvious enough but what if the phrase in question is a weakly creaking chair? Or what if the chair is weak legged?

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate—that is the question. The answer? It just depends.

The Dehyphenation Trend

One thing hyphenation depends on is your country of origin. As the gulf widened between American and British English, so did the hyphenation gap. British English tends toward a more heavily hyphenated style, while American English is a little more loose. And it just gets looser with time.

In the early 1800s, the differences between British and American hyphen usage were not so great. Older American writers seem to have largely followed their own taste in all matters of punctuation, but in general they seem to fall into two categories—those who never used hyphens and those who hyphenated everything. The educated typically fell into the latter class; therefore, heavy hyphenation prevailed in the printed word. Accordingly, the New York Times started life as the New-York Times. A watermelon was sometimes a water-melon. Even words like to-day and to-morrow were frequently hyphenated. (Although neither water-melon nor to-morrow are adjectives, they give one a taste of historic punctuation.)

Although the rage for hyphenation cooled off somewhat in the middle of the 19th century, compound adjectives were still hyphenated. A 1908 book titled English Grammar by Knut Gjerset gave the following rule without exception: “When two or more words are joined together to form a compound word hyphens (-) are placed between them.” Other grammar books from around the same era chose the same approach.

Dehyphenation didn’t begin in earnest until much later. Perhaps the seeds had already been sown by Sir Winston Churchill’s time, for he regarded the hyphen as “a blemish to be avoided, whenever possible.” Those in advertising and packaging tended to agree. The advent of the Internet saw a further decline in hyphen usage, and now with the birth of eBooks, even hyphenating the ends of lines is impractical, and therefore likely to go the way of the dinosaur.

Good riddance, right? Not so fast! Until someone comes up with a better idea, hyphenating some words is still unavoidable. To borrow a popular example, it makes a big difference whether we’re talking about a man eating shark or a man-eating shark.

Modern Hyphenation Rules

If we can’t be rid of hyphens completely, then we’re obviously going to need some kind of a rule. The basic rule given in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) is as follows:

“When a phrase functions as an adjective preceding the noun it modifies … the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated.”

So far so good. Now on to the exceptions.

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

We’ll take a closer look at each exception in turn.

  • Explore the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Do a simple search on a hyphen (-).  Make a list of the words that are hyphenated that would not be hyphenated today.  (Answers below.)
  • Read the following:

    It was so large a house that she did not like to go nearer till she had nibbled some more of the left-hand bit of mushroom, and raised herself to about two feet high.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

    Notice the word left-hand.

    Use a hyphen when you write about the left-hand side of the street or the left-hand bit of mushroom or left-hand something else.  In other words, if it is an adjective (a describing word), hyphenate it.  If it is just your left hand or my left hand, do not hyphenate it.  Write in your own words this adjective rule for hyphenating.Dr. Ruth Beechick, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully

    No one makes things more simple and clear than Ruth Beechick!

Further Investigation

Clear and simple.

Not so clear, and certainly not simple — and a clue as to why this article exists.

It Can Hyphen Here: Why the New-York Historical Society Includes a Hyphen
Brief and interesting look at our historical use of  hyphens.


Hyphen with Prefixes Quiz
Starting off simply.

Hyphens with re- Words Quiz
Another simple interactive.

Beechick Basics

You Can Teach Your Child Successfully by Dr. Ruth Beechick
This book provides everything you need to teach your children all subjects grades 4-8.  Great resource for the DIY homeschool mom.  Highly recommended!

Notebooking Pages

Generally agreed-upon rules.  Great printout for notebook (use the “Print this Resource” button below)!

Answers to the Dickens exercise
  • Cock-lane
  • fellow-tradesman
  • drawing-rooms
  • to-day
  • to-morrow