Editing Notes: The Trouble with Hyphens

Hyphens are the glue that sticks words together, making them into a new word.  I couldn’t possibly go through all the rules for proper hyphenation in one post, so today I’m going to tackle the one I see broken the most: compound adjectives.

The blue-eyed boy was watching me through the restaurant window.

No one is going to argue with hyphenating “blue-eyed,” right?  Because the boy isn’t blue, and he isn’t eyed.  Blue and eyed work together as one word to modify boy, so they get connected with a hyphen.

But…the same does not hold true when one of the words in the phrase is an adverb:

The delicately engraved locket was gorgeous.

No hyphen is needed here because delicately doesn’t describe the locket, it modifies engraved.  How was the locket engraved? Delicately.

(Of course, getting rid of the adverb by rewriting the sentence not to need it is probably better, but adverb-adjective phrases are necessary sometimes, and they don’t get hyphens.  So the point stands.)

Another common mistake is in age descriptors:

His twelve-year-old son was a handful.

All three words together describe the son, so they’re hyphenated into one.  However, when the “time” part of the phrase is plural, it breaks down differently, grammatically speaking:

His son is twelve years old.

No hyphens are necessary, and I admit this gets a little weird, but here’s why–twelve modifies years, which modifies old.  “Shouldn’t twelve-years be hyphenated then?” you might ask.  No, because twelve doesn’t modify old directly.  Consider this example then, without a quantity word given:

His daughter was days old when his mother passed away, so she never got to meet the child.

The precise number of days isn’t necessary to make it a modifier for old.  So, while it sounds awkward, this version of my original example is still grammatically correct:

His son is years old.

It doesn’t tell us how many, but it does imply his age isn’t properly measured in days or months.

So that covers the most common gaffes for using hyphens to make compound adjectives.  However, there’s some gray area I’ve run into in my own editing, common words that don’t follow a logical rule or pattern.

I used the compound word “face-down” to describe the physical orientation of a book.  When I wrote it, I didn’t question whether or not I had it right until turning on the spellchecker during editing.  (I don’t write with it on because I find it distracting, mostly because possessive names are always flagged as improperly spelled.)

The correct spelling suggested was “facedown.”  I was like, whaaaaat?  When did that become one word?  In a panic, I checked on the status of upside down and other similar orientation phrases…and I was flabbergasted.  Not only are the hyphen rules on those unclear (I’d hyphenate all of them, personally), some are being squished into one word when the hyphen is dropped (like facedown) and some are being left as two words.  The spellchecker on WordPress only accepts the spelling right-side up, one hyphen but not two.  It’s bizarre and there’s no discernible pattern (to me, at least) about where the hyphens go and what happens when they go away.

So when multiple usages exist, research is your friend.  Google both versions and see how many results you get for each, and what kind of sources they’re coming from.  Search “[one] vs. [the other] and read a few of the articles that turn up, because if you’re having this problem, so did someone else.

I would have sworn it was face-down.  But Bill Bryson says it best in Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way:

Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines.

(I do think it’s funny there’s no Oxford comma in that quote, though.  I’d use it.  I’m an Oxford comma gal.)


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