An American Editor

October 21, 2013

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

Recently, in editing my essays for my forthcoming book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7; Waking Lion Press; 2014), Ruth Thaler-Carter raised this question:

“Shouldn’t custom built locally be custom-built locally?”

There are three editors on this project — Ruth, myself, and Jack Lyon — which has meant there have been some lively language discussions and this was another such discussion. The opinion was split 2-1 in favor of hyphenation. I was the dissenting opinion and so won the battle as the author and final decider, but that doesn’t mean my decision was the grammatically right decision; it just means that as the named author I had final decision-making power and exercised it.

If you lookup “custom built” in the dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [5th ed] and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed]), you find the entry hyphenated followed by “adj.” It is those three letters that cause the problem.

I agree that custom built needs to be hyphenated in an adjectival phrase, such as custom-built computer. But when not used in an adjectival phrase, as in “custom built locally,” I see no reason to hyphenate. What does hyphenation accomplish? Is a reader misled in the absence of the hyphenation? Is “custom built locally” more understandable when hyphenated and, conversely, less understandable when not hyphenated?

This is similar to the questions raised by short term and long term. A look at the dictionaries indicates that these are also adjectives and hyphenated. But there is no mention of when they are not adjectives. For example, “When the short term expires, payment will be due.”

Editors rely on dictionaries and other usage tomes for guidance — and so editors should. But the emphasis has to be on guidance. Editors are supposed to consider, evaluate, and exercise judgment with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the reader understands the author.

So the question arises: Do phrases that are hyphenated when used as adjectives continue to be hyphenated when not used in adjectival form? (Yes, I recognize that there are other forms in which the hyphenated version is needed or required, including in certain noun situations; let’s ignore those situations and look toward a more general rule.)

(Let me make clear that editors have and should have differences of opinion about such matters of grammar as hyphenation. Regardless as to how we ultimately “resolve” today’s question, there is no absolute right or wrong. Rather, we seek a guiding rule. Ultimately, it is my belief that a professional editor can and should make decisions, such as whether to hyphenate or not, based on whether the editor can support the decision.)

Perhaps a good phrase to evaluate is decision making. I raise it because it does not appear in the dictionary yet whatever rule we generate would be as applicable to decision making as to short term and custom built. I suspect that we would all agree that in this instance, decision making should be hyphenated: “In the decision-making process, …” But should it be hyphenated in this usage: “It is clear that the decision making was faulty.” In this latter sentence, the absent but implied word is “process.” Is implication sufficient to warrant hyphenation?

Or what about these pairs: “Betty was the decision maker” versus “the decision-maker Betty”? In the former, the modifier precedes the phrase; in the latter it follows on its heels. The latter is clear that hyphenation is warranted; not so in the former.

In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that what governs is clarity. If hyphenation will make the meaning clearer, then hyphenate; if it neither enhances nor decreases clarity, then don’t hyphenate. I do not stand alone in this view. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., §7.85 for those who require “authority”) says:

“In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.”

The problem with Chicago‘s guidance is that it still leaves us in the dark whether to hyphenate short term, long term, decision making, and custom built — unless we latch onto the final clause, “hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability,” which is what I use to make my decision. In the case of decision making, I can also latch on to the noun + gerund examples Chicago provides in the table that accompanies §7.85, where Chicago specifically says “decision making” and “decision-making group.”

On the one hand, it strikes me that short term, long term, and custom built should be no different than decision making. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the case of these three phrases, the fact that the dictionaries hyphenate them is sufficient fallback justification to hyphenate them (even though they classify the hyphenated form as adjectival). I prefer, however, to base my decision on what counts most: readability.

Do you hyphenate? What is your justification for doing/not doing so?

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