Grammar Hyphenated Compound Words |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Hyphenated Compound Words

It’s enough to drive even the most exacting writers, proofers, and editors a little batty sometimes: More than one descriptive word precedes a noun, forming what we call a compound modifier. Do we need to hyphenate the words, or are they well enough left alone? What if we have two words modifying another word and all three describe the same noun, creating a package that begs for punctuation?

Sometimes the solution is simple, as we’ve covered in our hyphen rules. Rule 1 advises hyphenating two or more words acting as a single idea when they come before a noun (late-arriving train, ne’er-do-well teenager, one-of-a-kind invention).

Exceptions to this rule are compound modifiers that include adverbs such as much and very as well as any -ly adverb (much maligned administrator, very good cake, easily remembered song).

We also wouldn’t hyphenate a compound that’s an obvious unit such as most proper nouns (Social Security check) and foreign expressions (quid pro quo exchange).

Open Compound: Hyphen or No Hyphen?

When a two-word descriptor takes the form of a compound noun (e.g., real estate, high school, sales tax), hyphenation becomes a matter of preference. Some writers and editors identify the compound nouns as clearly understood units while others still hyphenate them to maintain stylistic consistency and remove any chance of confusion.

real estate advisor vs. real-estate advisor
high school dance vs. high-school dance
sales tax increase vs. sales-tax increase

In Rule 5 of Hyphens, we also emphasize including a hyphen with a compound modifier anytime omitting one could lead to ambiguity.

Potentially misaimed: Springfield has little town charm. (If we omit the hyphen, we’re suggesting Springfield lacks appeal. Is that what we want to say?)
Clearer with hyphen: Springfield has little-town charm. (The punctuation establishes that Springfield has the charm of a small, cozy town.)

Potentially misaimed: That is a fast running machine. (Is it a machine that runs fast, or a running machine [i.e., a treadmill] that operates faster than others?)
Clearer with hyphen: That is a fast-running machine. (a machine that runs fast)

Open Compound: Hyphen or En Dash?

The guidelines thus far help define and apply hyphenation of preceding descriptors. The next question concerns what to do when we run into phrases such as stippling technique influenced painter and apple orchard scented candle.

If we employ basic hyphenation, we wind up with phrases such as stippling-technique-influenced painter and apple-orchard-scented candle. While such punctuation can be acceptable, it can also be unsightly and distracting. Some editors feel it muddles phrasal components of careful writing.

To solve this, some style guides turn to the en dash, which is longer than the hyphen and shorter than the em dash. We have explored the mark in En Dash: What Is an En Dash? The article points out that many daily publications do not use the en dash for compound descriptors. Conversely, books and other formal publications will include it, although sparingly.

In careful writing, the hyphen connects immediately related words (late-arriving train, little-town charm). The en dash more clearly identifies descriptive units within modifiers of three or more words when they include a compound noun. In stippling technique influenced painter, stippling technique is a compound noun modifying influenced. It therefore remains open (no punctuation); it is then connected as a multipart modifier to influenced with the en dash. In total, the three descriptive words complete the noun phrase stippling technique–influenced painter.

If we write other mutations such as stippling technique-influenced painter and stippling-technique–influenced painter, we compromise accurately marked word relationships and correct treatment of parts of speech. We also create traffic jams of punctuation.

The same principles apply to apple orchard–scented candle. Apple orchard is the compound noun left open to identify it as such. The en dash then connects the compound unit to scented to complete the three-word modifier of candle.

In step with all of our grammatical principles, our aim is always precision and clarity. While you may not see them working together very often, further understanding the functions of the hyphen and the en dash will sharpen your mission to write with precision.


Pop Quiz

In the following sentences, identify whether the italicized phrase would require a hyphen, an en dash, or no punctuation because it is a compound noun.

1. The expensive looking car must belong to one of those pro athletes over there.
a) hyphen: expensive-looking car
b) en dash: expensive–looking car
c) no punctuation: expensive looking car

2. The corn starch amended food is cheaper to produce but now lesser in protein.
a) hyphen: corn-starch amended food
b) en dash: corn starch–amended food
c) no punctuation: corn starch amended food

3. I’ve been waiting at the train station for more than two hours.
a) hyphen: train-station
b) en dash: train–station
c) no punctuation: train station


Pop Quiz Answers

1. a) The expensive-looking car must belong to one of those pro athletes over there.
Explanation: expensive-looking is a compound modifier of car.

2. b) The corn starch–amended food is cheaper to produce but now a lesser source of protein.
Explanation: the words corn starch amended modify food, and corn starch is a compound noun describing amended.

3. c) I’ve been waiting at the train station for more than two hours.
Explanation: train station is a compound noun not modifying another word.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

6 responses to “Hyphenated Compound Words”

  1. Kari says:

    Would I write: “He held a flashlight-looking device at the children.” OR should there not be a hyphen? As always, thank you for your help!

  2. Brenda Russell says:

    Personally, I find the inclusion of The Elusive En-Dash to be quite difficult to achieve, given the prevalence of the use of Microsoft Word, which forces major issues on writers regarding such simple tasks as spelling. Trying to convince Word to use an en-dash strikes me as an exercise in futility. I am far more likely to simply rewrite the sentence to avoid the offending construction. Or write it by hand, over which process I have more control. We have, yet again, done ourselves an injury by following the leader.

    • It does sometimes seem that Microsoft Word tries a little too hard to “correct” us. We have found that, at least when using a PC with a numbers pad, depressing “Alt 0150” yields an en dash and “Alt 0151” yields an em dash. You may also be able to form these dashes on your handheld device by holding down the hyphen on the number and symbol keyboard.

  3. Rose says:

    Thank you for the excellent article on hyphens. Could you please tell me if a hyphen should follow the word single?
    Hundreds, or possibly thousands of single- and two-story buildings extend across the landscape. Thank you.

    • Yes, the suspended hyphen is correct. Also note the added comma: Hundreds, or possibly thousands, of single- and two-story buildings extend across the landscape.
      You might also consider long dashes instead of commas: Hundreds—or possibly thousands—of single- and two-story buildings extend across the landscape.

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