Rantings of a sub-editor

August 3, 2010

A sorely-needed correction

Filed under: compound adjectives,grammar,hyphens — substuff @ 7:35 pm
Tags: , ,

I would like to point out to my esteemed colleagues the following: if it ends in ‘ly’, you don’t need to hyphenate it. Simple.

Or, in sub-editor speak, only hyphenate a compound adjective if it is formed of two adjectives – not an adverb (ending in ‘ly’) followed by an adjective.

Journos at other publications, if they get it wrong, tend to omit the hyphen altogether – compound adjective or not. This is fine by me. I am quite happy to put the hyphens in. You could even say, if you were feeling daring, that I enjoy putting them in.

At Which?, however, there are hyphens all over the place. Meticulously, I un-hyphenate “highly-sensitive touchscreen”, “fairly-decent battery life” and “lightly-textured bread”. Unlike putting the hyphens in, this doesn’t make me smile with a gently smug beneficence. On the contrary, it provokes a lemon-sucking expression.

But what makes me really mad, what takes that lemon-sucking face and cranks up the sourness with a bulldog and a wasp, is when, after I’ve taken out these nonsense hyphens, a proof comes back to me with them all marked in again. Seriously? OMG, as they say. I can only imagine that at some point, some well-meaning person has run a short grammar course and the subject of compound adjectives has come up. And either that person taught it wrong, or they explained it really badly. Either way, it has spread like a disease and now hyphens are everywhere. Soon they’ll be taking our-jobs, our-women and eventually-even-our (yes, Mr Gibson, fallen from grace as you are) freedom.

Now here’s the science. Hyphens are not just decorative. They are not there simply because subs like them (although I’ll admit that I do). They have not been left out because the sub didn’t attend that grammar course you vaguely remember. They are there for one simple reason: to aid clarity. This is the difference between adjective+adjective+noun and adverb+adjective+noun. The former can often easily be misread. The latter can’t. So if adding a hyphen doesn’t add clarity, don’t add it.

For example:

He’s a thick skinned man. This could just about be read to mean a stupid man who has been skinned. So hyphenate it: a thick-skinned man.

He’s an easily offended man. This can’t be misread. The adverb ‘easily’ can only apply to the adjective that follows it. Don’t hyphenate it.

A sweet smelling loaf. What’s a ‘smelling loaf’ when it’s at home? I don’t know, but it sure is sweet! Hyphenate.

An ominously dark sky. Don’t.

Finally, just because it’s too good not to be repeated:

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10 Comments »

  1. This one does my head in. Once had a splash headline that said ‘newly wed mum … ‘ and my boss made me put a hyphen in. I was furious.

    Comment by danclough — August 3, 2010 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

    • Eww! Did you ask him what he thought a wed-mum could possibly be?

      Comment by substuff — August 4, 2010 @ 5:23 am | Reply

  2. Yes, yes, yes! But things get more confused when you’re talking about a compound adjective – adverb + adjective – in which the adverb is irregular and does not end in -ly. For example, a well-known singer; a fast-run race; a much respected (much-respected?) poet. I’ve seen so many different opinions on this from various subs and style guides.

    Comment by andrea — August 4, 2010 @ 4:40 am | Reply

    • True, true. Personally I would hyphenate in all the above examples (especially anything with ‘well’ as it’s such a multi-purpose word). I think it makes it smoother for the reader – although I’ve never seen a definitive rule.

      Take the example: “The well known singer came in first place, but it was a fast run race and the much respected writer came a close second.”

      Of course we can work out what it means, but it’d be an awful lot easier with the hyphens in.

      Comment by substuff — August 4, 2010 @ 5:34 am | Reply

  3. Excellent piece, I hope every writer (and sub) reads in it and takes note. I’ve always stuck to this approach: If the word is only ever an adverb, never an adjective, then there is no need for hyphenation. So we might clash on “much respected”! As always, it’s a fine line between achieving clarity and patronising the reader.
    The one that astonishes me is the hyphenation of verb and preposition in a phrasal verb such as: “The match kicked-off at 3.”
    I’ve seen it more and more over the years in raw copy. An irrational feeling of contempt for the writer rises up within me, I have to confess, one that is not provoked by worse grammar crimes.
    Hope you can sort out Which?. Fight the good fight!

    Comment by Neil Jenkin — August 4, 2010 @ 11:29 am | Reply

    • For you: “Smart meters are high-tech electricity and gas meters that the government wants to roll-out to homes across the country.”

      Thumbs up, thumbs down!

      Comment by substuff — August 10, 2010 @ 9:09 am | Reply

  4. Latest offence: “There’s a traditional cutlery basket rather than the newly-fashionable slide-out drawer.”

    Comment by substuff — August 5, 2010 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  5. On a similar topic, what kind of logic in the world prompts someone to write: “60-year old teacher”?

    Comment by substuff — August 12, 2010 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  6. At least that person was just missing a hyphen! I recently came across a “Xxxxxxx has lived in the house for 24-years”. I love a hyphen, but come on …

    Comment by andrea — August 12, 2010 @ 10:18 am | Reply

    • Quite. But in “60-year old teacher”, what logic would prompt you to put in one hyphen but not the other? I can understand leaving them all out – but why just one? It was repeated all the way through the feature!

      Comment by substuff — August 15, 2010 @ 12:46 pm | Reply


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