That’s the question we asked each other on the copy desk of The Dallas Morning News’ Trend section years ago. (I won’t specify how many years ago.)
We took a vote. A vote. I am ashamed to admit that now, especially after four years on the Opinion section of the same newspaper — I learned so much from knowledgeable staffers there.
However, now I have the same question as before: “One word, two or hyphenated?” Fortunately, thanks to another job in my past, I have an accumulation of grammar books.
Probably my favorite grammar book is Patricia O’Conner’s Woe is I. Here’s what she has to say about multiple words before a noun: “Use a hyphen when either of the two words in the description wouldn’t make very much sense by itself.”
That sounded kind of tentative, so I continued to another book on the shelf: Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay, by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis. “Most often, hyphens join two or more words that, taken together, form an adjective,” the Richards write.
Enough with the cutesy grammarians — I turned next to Theodore Bernstein’s Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. “Compounds consisting of an adverb and an adjective preceding a noun are usually hyphened [yes, hyphened] if there is even a remote chance that the adverb could be misread to be a modifier of the noun.” Bernstein goes on to specify that adverbs ending in -ly are not hyphenated because it is clear that they are adverbs.
Bernstein’s book was published in 1977, so let’s consult something more modern. Working with Words by Brian Brooks, James Pinson and Jean Gaddy Wilson list this as 11th in their “Twenty Common Errors” on the front inside flap: “Missing or misused hyphen(s) in a compound modifier.” First, they add “very” to the words that never deserve a hyphen. (In my humble opinion, “very” is seldom helpful.) “Use a hyphen between compound modifiers that precede the word they modify,” the book’s prescription, still doesn’t solve my problem.
Aha! You may have guessed that my motive is to prove that people hyphenate compound modifiers too often.So next I turned to the heaviest book I own, The Little, Brown Handbook, which, if I recall correctly, was donated to me by the English department at North Lake College. (Almost 1,000 pages. Woo hoo!) It reads:
A hyphen (or hyphens) correctly separate two or more words that are a single modifier before a noun. For example, well-known actor, out-of-date statistics, Spanish-speaking.
Don’t hyphenate when compound adjectives follow a noun.
Don’t hyphenate -ly words. (You’ve heard that before.)
None of this backs up my point (have I mentioned my point?) that words that modify each other should not be hyphenated before a noun.
Keys for Writers mentions that a superlative (-est) doesn’t get a comma, but it’s still not addressing my question.
I consulted the Bible of usage for journalists, the AP Stylebook. I can’t stress enough how helpful the online version is. The Stylebook says the fewer hyphens, the better. “Use them only when not using them would cause confusion,” it says. But then, it elaborates by specifying that a compound modifier, two or more words that express a single concept, is usually hyphenated, unless it is one of the exceptions we’ve already named.
So, I submit:
high school student, not high-school student
real estate agent, not real-estate agent