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Oct 14 / Gracie Leavitt

Hyphens: Some rules and common errors around compound modifiers

We’re back this week with another installment of common misunderstandings seen on the editing side of the site. This time we’re covering hyphens and compound modifiers, complete with examples based on some standard sportswriting constructions.

As with commas, there’s some wiggle room when it comes to deciding when and when not to employ the compound modifier hyphen. The sharpest of editors can end up debating whether hyphenation is a must in a given scenario.

But there are some clear-cut rules—and then there are the ultimate requirements: clarity and consistency.

When to Hyphenate a Compound Modifier

A compound modifier is formed when multiple words come together to describe a subsequent noun. We add a hyphen (or hyphens) to the mix to clarify this, as the meaning of a sentence can sometimes change or be obscured depending on how the ingredients of description fit together. Even when the meaning can be gleaned, the lack of a helpful hyphen can still interrupt readers’ experience when they find it necessary to retread a sentence. (“Wait, what did I just read? Ugh, gotta start over.”)

Let’s take a look at this sentence:

WRONG: Ryan Grigson dropped the injury prone players with hefty contracts.

It’s not that the meaning is completely elusive here, but a reader might need to reapproach the sentence to see that Grigson did not drop the noun “injury” and that “prone” isn’t modifying “players” all by itself. Using the hyphenated “injury-prone” creates a smoother read, making it immediately obvious that the players in question were prone to injury.

CORRECT: Ryan Grigson dropped the injury-prone players with hefty contracts.

More on hyphens from Grammar Girl, including a great section on how hyphens can change a sentence’s meaning.

Hyphenates Common to Sportswriting

“Injury-prone” is a compound modifier that appears with some frequency in our line of work. “Much-needed” and “well-known” pop up quite a lot too, but note that these are hyphenated only when (1) appearing directly before the noun described or (2) following a form of the verb “to be.”

WRONG: His early spark, much-needed since the team’s serious slump, proved insufficient as the game wore on.

CORRECT: Jake Peavy returning to top form provided a much-needed spark.

CORRECT: Jake Peavy returning to top form provided a spark that was much-needed.

With respect to this last correct example, the AP Stylebook says, “When a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion.”

We also see a lot of number-related compound modifiers requiring hyphenation. Here are a few examples:

  • The New York Rangers bounced back with a three-game winning streak.
  • He scored in double digits six times during his four-year career at Duke.
  • Illinois handed a double-digit loss to Gonzaga last December.
  • Michael Dyer slashed through the line of scrimmage for a five-yard gain.
  • She never started a high school game until proving her skills with a stellar third-quarter push.

Now is a good time to touch on the role of the suspended hyphen, since it often comes up in number-related phrasing. This construction allows us to combine multiple compound modifiers sharing a common element. In the example below, that shared element is “round”:

WRONG: Washington traded its first and second round picks in 2012.

WRONG: Washington traded its first and second-round picks in 2012.

WRONG: Washington traded its first-and-second-round picks in 2012.

CORRECT: Washington traded its first- and second-round picks in 2012.

More on suspended hyphens from Ask the English Teacher.

When NOT to Hyphenate a Compound Modifier

Let’s take a closer look at the last sentence in that group of number-related compound modifiers above:

  • She never started a high school game until proving her skills with a stellar third-quarter push.

We might feel compelled to add a hyphen between “high” and “school,” modifying “game.” However, “high school” is commonly understood as a single term, so there’s no need for extra clarity there.

A phrase like “slog it out,” meanwhile, is not a generic phrase, so we’ll want to hyphenate its adjectival usage:

  • The recently dethroned champions will need to take more than a slog-it-out approach.

This last sentence also gives us an opportunity to mention that we DO NOT want to hyphenate adverbs ending in “-ly.” That’s why the phrase “recently dethroned” should not contain a hyphen. Here’s another example of this rule:

WRONG: Jesse Scroggins arrived at USC as a highly-touted prospect.

CORRECT: Jesse Scroggins arrived at USC as a highly touted prospect.

More on “-ly” adverbs in compound constructions from Kent Law.

Hyphenating compound modifiers is all about making a text as precise and comprehensible as possible. We want to support readers’ encounter with each sentence rather than ask them to do a lot of work in deciphering the intended meaning.

We’ll be back next week to cover a few quirky constructions in greater detail and to highlight some related B/R style points. Until then, be sure to check out our Stylebook for further rules and guidelines.

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Gracie Leavitt manages the editor training program at Bleacher Report.