hyphen compound modifier

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Remember those wacky compound modifiers? No? Well, they're back!

Last time we wrote that compound adverbs ending in -ly are usually left open (unhyphenated) and that people frequently make the mistake of hyphenating them. This time we're writing about a similar error:

When compound adjectives follow a noun, they're usually left open, too.

For example, instead of writing that the strict policemen was a by-the-book Commissioner, we could say,

The Commissioner did things by the book.
We don't hyphenate "by the book" in this case because it follows the noun Commissioner.

But when we're going over the rules and their (many) exceptions, we like to know why the exception is made. Unfortunately our guide, Merriam Webster's Manual for Writers & Editors, doesn't offer an explanation; it simply says,
When a compound adjective follows the noun it modifies, it usually ceases to be a unit modifier and is therefore no longer hyphenated.
That doesn't help much, or...at all. And it gets even more confusing in the next part, where it says,
However, a compound that follows the noun it modifies often keeps its hyphen if it continues to function as a unit modifier, especially if its first element is a noun.

Clearly our style guide is a victim of substance abuse.

So we looked at the examples our guide used:
instructions that guide you step by step
a list that was longer than expected
These fell under the first category--when the compound ceased to be a unit modifier. The compounds that continued to function as a unit modifier were,
hikers who were ill-advised to cross the glacier
an actor too high-strung to relax
industries that could be called low-tech
What's the difference? We're still not entirely sure, but we did notice that when we removed the hyphen from the second set of examples, they read differently--at least more differently than the examples from the first set. For instance, when the hyphen is removed from the modifier in
hikers who were ill advised to cross the glacier
the compound isn't quite as clear as when the hyphen is removed from the sentence,
a list that was longer than expected
We asked our boss, and his rules were "for multiple hyphens [that is, compounds that are three or more words such as "larger-than-life," step-by-step," etc.], there's no hyphen after the noun." But you "keep the hyphen after the noun if the first word is a noun or is a cliche."

This isn't quite what the style guide recommends, and its examples--Ill-advised, High-strung, and Low-tech--don't begin with nouns but are still hyphenated, so we're not ready to follow thems rules.

Then again, we can't offer a hard-and-fast rule or a rule that is both hard and fast as to when you hyphenate and when you don't. This looks to be one of those instances when the rules of grammar overlap into obscenity--that is, you know it when you see it: You know when the hyphen should go there and when it should not.

Sort of a cop-out, but then again we warned ya: Them compound modifiers is wacky.