The compound-modifier hyphen connects and clarifies

Take advantage of our new customer discount. This means a new discount for customers, but I bet the writer meant a discount for new customers. We’re selling a little used car. This means the car is small, but I bet the writer meant the car had been used only a little. He has a family law practice. This means he practices with a relative, but I bet the writer meant he takes divorce cases.

What causes confusion in these examples is the absence of a hyphen. The rule—and yes, it’s a rule of written English, although some of us never learned it—requires a hyphen between words that jointly modify a noun. The Chicago Manual of Style § 7.81 (16th ed. 2010). These jointly modifying words are called “compound modifiers” or “phrasal adjectives.”

Careful writers hyphenate compound modifiers: Take advantage of our new-customer discount. We’re selling a little-used car. He has a family-law practice. The hyphen clarifies meaning, instantly telling the reader that the words modify the noun jointly, not independently. When the modifying phrase follows the noun, you need no hyphen: We offer a discount to a new customer. The car we’re selling is little used. His practice is in family law. You also need no hyphen for proper nouns (United States treaties), foreign phrases (prima facie case), and adverbs ending in -ly (highly skilled writer). You do need a hyphen for well phrases, like well-pleaded complaint, well-known jurist, and well-rounded person.

Some legal writers doubt the rule and say they don’t see compound-modifier hyphens in other writing. But the truth is they’re everywhere. We don’t notice them because they’re doing their job—smoothing out our reading and eliminating miscues. For the skeptical, I offer a sampling of hyphenated modifiers from a single edition of my local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. I recorded the first ten I saw:

single-family home
five-day period
technology-based processing system
city-owned street
since-discredited promise
60-vote majority
two-thirds requirement
far-reaching change
board-appointed reviewer
call-center jobs

If you look for them, you’ll find compound-modifier hyphens in any well-edited publication.

You can use several hyphens if the modifying phrase has several words. So all the following are correct: all-or-nothing strategy, on-the-spot investigation, two-year-old plan. But don’t get carried away with long, hyphenated modifying phrases. This might be okay: a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach, but this is too much: a let-the-jury-struggle-with-it-and-figure-it-out attitude.

You can also use a “suspended hyphen” if you don’t want to repeat the second part of two similar compound modifiers. So instead of right-brain and left-brain functions, you can do this: right- and left-brain functions, or 15- and 30-year mortgages.

In applying these hyphen rules, legal writers sometimes encounter a problem. In law we have many familiar expressions and phrases that technically require hyphens but that will not confuse if left unhyphenated. For example, all these would take hyphens: summary-judgment motion, good-faith effort, reasonable-person standard. But hyphenating them can seem pointless and, given that some readers don’t know the rule for compound-modifier hyphens, adding a hyphen might cause more confusion than it saves.

So you have a choice.

You can apply the hyphenate-your-compound-modifiers rule at all times, uniformly, even to familiar phrases. That way, you don’t have to stop and think about whether you’re causing confusion. You just follow the rule: I always hyphenate compound modifiers, and this is a compound modifier, so I’ll hyphenate. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, supports this “flat rule.”

Or you can apply the hyphenation rule when confusion might result, but not to familiar legal phrases. So you’d hyphenate high-performing employee and public-agency exception but not common law doctrine, third party beneficiary, or summary judgment motion. Of course, with the case-by-case approach you have to gauge your audience’s knowledge and differentiate general audiences from specialized ones. Thus, you’d probably need to hyphenate differently for a labor lawyer and for a generalist judge and maybe even for the judge’s clerk. As you can see, you avoid wrestling with tough calls if you apply the flat rule.

Whether you apply the flat rule or a case-by-case standard, put “hyphenate compound modifiers” or “hyphenate phrasal adjectives” on your editing checklist.


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