Hyphens: Compound (word) interest

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I have a weakness as a copy editor. It’s punctuation. I am often at a loss when a colleague asks me about commas, semicolons and hyphens. Usually, I can put the question off while I check the style guides and usage books. You would think that after all these years some of that research would have embedded the rules in my brain permanently, but apparently I have a deep-seated mental resistance.

The latest reminder of my punctuation weakness came last week when a colleague asked about the compound noun “problem solver.” I had not added a hyphen when I edited the piece with that noun in a headline, but another editor suggested that it should have a hyphen. I vaguely remembered a rule that calls for hyphens in compound adjectives and compound verbs but not in compound nouns. I had to refresh my memory once again and look up hyphens and compounds.

What I have found:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, has eight pages of excellent and detailed guidance in “Compounds and Hyphenation,” 7.77-7.85.

The Gregg Reference Manual, 10th Edition, by William A. Sabin has 29 pages of guidance, pp. 216-244, sections 801-846.

Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition, has a bit more than four pages on “Phrasal Adjectives” and “Phrasal Verbs,” pp. 625-629.

The most valuable guidance from each of these wonderful reference works is consult the dictionary. The second-most valuable advice is consider the reader’s understanding. In other words, if hyphenating a compound will head off confusion on the reader’s part, use the hyphen.

1. Compound adjectives are generally hyphenated before a noun but not in the predicate: the commencement speaker is a well-known author; the commencement speaker is well known.

2. Compound verbs are hyphenated when two nouns are joined to create a verb: ice-skate, court-martial. But hyphens can also prevent ambiguity in verbs.  There is a difference, for example, between recovering a sofa (perhaps from the dump where it was thrown) and re-covering a sofa (because its upholstery is stained from being cast into a dump).

3. Compound nouns may be open (spelled as two or more words with no hyphen), hyphenated (written with one or more hyphens) or closed or solid (written as one word). You can look up the word compound in a dictionary and follow the spelling listed. Alternatively, if you don’t find the word in any form, you can write it as two words (preferable in most instances) or you can decide that the compound would be better understood with a hyphen.

So we would hyphenate the compound modifier problem-solving and the wretchedly jargonistic verb problem-solve (to help the reader’s understanding), but we don’t need to hyphenate the noun problem solver because that compound was not listed in any dictionary I checked. I don’t think a hyphen would hurt, though, and if your boss says he or she prefers a hyphen, use it.

One other lesson from my research for this post is what great resources Chicago Manual of Style and Gregg Reference Manual are. Even if you don’t use Chicago for your day-to-day editing, it is worth having on your shelf. And I think Gregg is essential for anyone who writes for business.

I also checked The Economist Style Guide and found that British publications are more likely to use hyphens.

The Associated Press Stylebook has this to say about hyphens:

Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion.

Besides the books I mentioned, I consulted some websites. Here are a few that I found helpful:

Writing for Business and Pleasure by Stephen Wilbers. “Spelling compound words with or without hyphens”

GrammarBook.com by Jane Straus, author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation,

Oxford Dictionaries, “Hyphen”

The Guide to Grammar and Writing, sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation. Founded by Dr. Charles Darling. “Compound Words”

University of Houston-Victoria Academic Center, “Using Hyphens Correctly.” This is a PDF that has a practice quiz at the end of it.

Mayfield Electronic Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing. Authors: Leslie C. Perelman, Edward Barrett, and James Paradis. “Hyphens”