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?


  1. very interesting…


    Comment by nowwhatsmyname — October 21, 2013 @ 5:34 am | Reply

  2. Copy editing is an art, and many “rules” are not carved in stone. For example, the New Yorker uses (or used to use; I haven’t checked lately) nonstandard treatment of quotation marks after semicolons. Some years ago I wrote to their copy editor to ask if usage had changed, and the woman replied that it hadn’t, that this was simply an oddball style that they used. She has since died and maybe they use different rules now.

    Part of the task of a copy editor is to judge what the audience of a piece of writing is and to edit accordingly. Hence a textbook for foreign language speakers (or foreign-language speakers) or for junior high school students (or junior-high-school students) might hyphenate “the high-school play.” But most adult native speakers of English will view “high school” as one concept and hence aren’t apt to read that phrase as a “school play given on a platform” and so the hyphen is not necessary.

    Thus good copy editing is more than reading a list of rules and applying them mindlessly. Good editing takes thought and time, which many publishers don’t understand.


    Comment by Gretchen — October 21, 2013 @ 7:41 am | Reply

  3. I just had a discussion about long[-]term/short[-]term with a client. In “When the short term expires, payment will be due,” term is a noun and short is describing it as a standard adjective, but there’s nothing for “short term” to modify, so the two words don’t take a hyphen. If the sentence were “When the short-term loan expires, payment will be due,” “short term” would be modifying “loan” and a hyphen would be appropriate.

    Somehow, to me, “custom built locally” still calls out for a hyphen. I must think that the phrase is modifying “locally,” even though that isn’t a noun.

    “decision making/maker” makes me nuts, because it seems to ask for a hyphen no matter how it’s used. Maybe I’m just hyphen-happy.

    Having colleagues who care about language and enjoy discussing these niceties is such a treat, even if my preference gets over-ridden!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 21, 2013 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  4. I’m with you on this one, Rich. “The structure is custom built locally” is, in my view, the same as “the structure is custom built.” It’s not an adjective, hence it requires no hyphen. I’ve been struggling with hyphens lately, too, because I have a new client in the health care industry (no hyphen, since “health care” is a compound noun), and I’m running into all kinds of industry-related compound nouns that are not familiar to me (“patient activation” anyone?). But as nowwhatsmyname notes, if the audience is familiar with the term, it’s better to go light on the hyphens. Fun discussion, thanks!


    Comment by Laura Silver — October 21, 2013 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  5. Has anyone noticed that “dictionaries” is misspelled in your Tags? You might want to fix that.

    For hyphenation, I tend to follow the easier (to me) road: I hyphenate when used as adjectives (before the word they modify) and don’t hyphenate when not used in adjectival form (usually after the word they’re connected with). But I also try to make sure there’s no room for misinterpretation. I will hyphenate for clarity.

    Good discussion.


    Comment by Nann Dunne — October 21, 2013 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  6. Interesting article. As an English person living in Australia, when I read ‘custom-built locally’ I immediately thought of furniture (as in ‘a custom-built wardrobe, built locally’). I can’t see any justification for a hyphen here, and I think it would perhaps be clearer to write ‘custom that is built locally’.


    Comment by ozeditor — October 21, 2013 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  7. Great discussion. Many STM clients of mine have their own very specific hyphenation preferences–I have several separate sheets with the same terms never hyphenated the same way twice. In my personal documents, I follow CMS and hyphenate only when it will improve readability.


    Comment by H.E. Saunders — October 21, 2013 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

    • My clients also had very different styles for hyphenation. One thing one learns with experience is that no “rules” are absolute.


      Comment by Gretchen — October 22, 2013 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  8. Hi Rich—thanks for the interesting post on hyphenation. Like you, I generally follow the “hyphenate only for clarity” rule. So I would add a hyphen in the phrase “a custom-built computer but not in the following: “The computer was custom built locally.” I have to differ from others above, however, in their assertion that “custom built” is not an adjective in the sentence “The computer was custom built locally” because it follows the noun. In fact, “built” is a participle used as a predicate adjective, “custom” is an adjective that modifies “built,” and “locally” of course is an adverb, which one could argue modifies either the whole caboodle (i.e., the adjectival phrase “custom built”) or just the participle as predicate adjective (i.e., “built”).


    Comment by Marian Rogers — October 21, 2013 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

    • I concur with this rationale. In my own style sheets, I often differentiate hyphenated and unhyphenated compounds by their use as adjectives before a noun or predicate adjectives. This helps especially with individual authors who might not understand why some compound is hyphenated in some places but not in others.


      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — October 22, 2013 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

  9. Great post! And really timely. Hyphen use has been a big issue in some of the work I’ve been doing recently. It’s nice to have one more opinion to consult before using one (or deleting one . . . or several!). Any chance you’ve got a post on the em dash? Again, great post.


    Comment by James Weber — October 22, 2013 @ 10:15 am | Reply

  10. Sometimes my job as copyeditor is to make sure I’m correctly applying the publisher’s or organization’s guidelines on hyphenation (some are very specific), and other times I have a lot more leeway, almost as much as Rich had on his own book, and am charged with making the judgment calls myself. In the latter case, I make sure to keep a pretty detailed style sheet that explains (briefly) why some terms are hyphenated in some places and not in others (e.g., adjective before a noun vs. after a noun). Then the key is to be consistent in applying these rules to the text. If the client disagrees with any of my choices, then at least they’re easy enough for me to change if I’ve done a good job at being consistent.

    As Rich wrote, on some of these issues, like compound hyphenation, there is really no hard-and-fast rule, and we as CEs must try to apply the logic of the particular job at hand. One thing that drives me nuts, though, is in discussions with editors, some argue for hyphenating almost every compound because of an infinitesimal possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. We have to give readers some credit for intelligence, especially when the context makes the meaning crystal clear!


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — October 22, 2013 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

    • The problem is deciding when that possibility is infinitesimal. An example. There’s a type of diabetes called maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY). It’s not hyphenated in most sources. In the past, it was thought to be Type 2 diabetes (which used to be called “maturity-onset diabetes”) occurring in young people. It’s now used to mean a form of monogenic diabetes.

      But I have a friend who blogged about diabetes and argued that the term meant “maturity-onset” “diabetes-of-the young” or type 1 diabetes (which used to be called “juvenile diabetes”) occurring in old people. It took a long time to convince the friend otherwise.

      My point is that apparently most people think there’s not much possibility of miscomprehension, yet a well-educated and very intelligent writer *did* misinterpret the term when a few hyphens (maturity-onset-diabetes of the young) would have clarified it. So when in doubt, unless the publisher specifies otherwise, my preference is to use the hyphens, especially in scientific publications, whose readers are often not native English speakers.


      Comment by Gretchen — October 22, 2013 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  11. I would use the hyphen here, i.e., “the computer was custom-built locally,” on the grounds that the two words form a compound verb.


    Comment by Santhosh Paul — October 22, 2013 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  12. Reblogged this on Grammar Rules! and commented:
    Hah! This proves my earlier argument about using a hyphen in “social media.”


    Comment by Tania — October 23, 2013 @ 7:44 pm | Reply

  13. I think you have a typo in this sentence: In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that the what governs is clarity


    Comment by Deborah S. Hart-Serafini — November 6, 2015 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  14. The fact that you used the word “myself” made me immediately doubt your judgment.


    Comment by Mark Tanger — October 5, 2016 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  15. I think that I prefer to hyphenate “custom-built” but have no problem leaving “short term” unhyphenated when it doesn’t precede a noun. On reflection, I think that this is because “custom” may be a noun or adjective, so my mind raises the possibility of a custom (n. tradition or business) that is built locally when I read your phrase. Perhaps in the full sentence my mind might not be led down such a path or perhaps this is because I grew up in more hyphenated times.
    By the way, isn’t “lookup” a noun and not a verb (“If you lookup…”)?
    Years late to the discussion I know but I just stumbled across your site tonight. Really interesting and enjoyable, thanks!


    Comment by Tina — November 12, 2016 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  16. People get confused because they think hyphens are an element of spelling. They are not. They are elements of punctuation. As such, they are used to punctuate compound modifiers, not dictate that a word pair always gets a hyphen. An exception is the rare case of compound words, such as “Let’s blue-pencil the draft before we typeset.” Also, adverbs are not given a hyphen unless you are in the UK.


    Comment by Renate Lewin — November 23, 2016 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

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