A friend of mine, author R.J. Keller, recommended this article over the weekend and in so doing noted her own struggles with hyphenation. (It’s OK for me to reveal that, isn’t it, R.J.?)

That caught my attention for the opposite reason: I love hyphens. And it’s not a sick, dirty, abusive love, either. It’s a good, clean, honorable love born of a compulsion to bring order to disorder (or, in many cases, to bring pedanticism to the perfectly understandable).

Long before I ever wrote a novel, I made my bones as a copy editor. And while I love to stand back in admiration at a sleek, stylish sentence — or, better yet, to write one — I will forever thrill at getting my hands greasy by tearing out the component parts and examining them. I think that partly explains why as much as I enjoy writing, I enjoy rewriting even more.

At any rate, given R.J.’s determination to get the better of hyphens, I felt compelled to share with her a style ruling I made a couple of years ago at my day job. The ruling was inspired by another friend, the estimable John McIntyre, who instituted a similar guideline at the Baltimore Sun. It’s meant to comfortably straddle two divergent approaches to hyphenation: the traditional view, which holds that rigid deployment of the little scamp of a mark ensures clarity even if it seems a bit stuffy, and the more modern view, which eschews the hyphen unless its omission would somehow compromise readability.

Here, then, is that style codification. Grab your popcorn:

Compound modifiers and hyphens

This is a grammatical issue that leads to wild inconsistency in the stories we publish. The general movement these days, judging from our copy (wire and locally produced), is to eschew hyphens in compound modifiers unless ambiguity would result. The problem with that approach is in perception: One person’s clarity is another’s ambiguity.

Accordingly, we’re instituting some guidelines that, we hope, will round us into form:

First, be sure you’re actually dealing with a compound modifier and not a single adjective modifying a noun phrase. That’s dangerously gobbledygookish, so here’s an example: One might be tempted to hyphenate “grilled cheese sandwich,” but a closer examination makes it clear that the cheese sandwich (there’s your noun phrase) is being grilled, not the cheese inside the sandwich. Verdict: not a compound modifier, and therefore no hyphen.

Once you’re sure you’ve hooked a compound, look in the AP stylebook for an explicit ruling on the specific compound in question. The general rule, as outlined in the punctuation section, is far less reliable — so much so that even AP’s own writers and editors follow it inconsistently, making it almost useless.

If you don’t find the compound in the AP stylebook, check the dictionary (Webster’s New World College Edition), which governs everything AP doesn’t. The dictionary, for example, calls for a hyphen in “ice cream” as a compound modifier (e.g., “ice-cream cone”). While that might strike you as overly rigid, hyphenate away. Because you know what happens once we start disregarding the dictionary willy-nilly: collapsing schools, anarchy, cats and dogs living together in sin and other enormities too horrible to mention.

So, let’s say for argument’s sake that you haven’t found satisfaction from AP or the dictionary. Here’s how you arrive at a solution:

In noun-noun combinations (stream access bill, coalbed methane drilling, etc.), no hyphen. This will come up a lot with legislation and other government-related (!) stuff.

In adjective-noun or noun-adjective combinations (small-arms fire, right-field fence, time-consuming task, AIDS-related complications, user-friendly, etc.), use a hyphen, as do those compounds backloaded into a sentence (the man is well-known, her advice is well-regarded, he is quick-witted, etc.)

Here comes a mouthful: In any compound modifier of three or more words in which at least one is an adjective, use the hyphens throughout. For example: property-tax-related bills (not property tax-related bills).

In any case where ambiguity is evident, regardless of combination, use the hyphen. No amount of codification will eliminate the need for writers and editors to practice discretion. And thank goodness for that, or else we’re all filling out job applications at Albertsons (no apostrophe).

One last hint: It’s OK to embrace grammatical avoidance, that deft little maneuver that involves writing around a problem. Sometimes, it’s better to find a new construction than to untangle a pile-up of modifiers. “He is awaiting trial on charges of immigration fraud” sounds a lot less stilted than “He is awaiting trial on immigration fraud charges.” (And never mind the extra words; we’re talking about clarity here, not brevity.)

As ever, a relatively small number of adjective-noun compounds, owing to common usage, will remain un-hyphenated: middle school, high school, real estate, civil rights, mental health, natural gas. We will err on the restrictive side in granting these exceptions, however. The guiding principle is that a hyphen will almost never inhibit clarity, while the absence of one can certainly lead to unclear writing and unhealthy relations between felines and canines, both of which are outcomes we should all strive to avoid.

Finally, this by no means covers all possibilities and combinations. We’ll just grapple with the ones that don’t neatly fall into categories as they come up.

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