A dull-as-ditchwater subject

A dull-as-ditchwater subject, but a not-to-be-missed topic: hyphenation of compound adjectives before nouns.

You’ve probably worked out what this one’s about by now. One of the various uses of hyphens, in what grammarians would call “attributive use of a compound adjective” – in other words, a short, multi-word, descriptive term placed before its noun. These get hyphenated. But not when they stand alone, for instance after the noun. So:

  • a door-to-door journey goes from door to door; an up-to-date book is up to date; a one-year-old child is one year old
  • other common examples that need a hyphen when used attributively are a yes-or-no answer, modern-day attitudes, a 180-degree view (yes, numbers as a well!), a no-nonsense teacher, tongue-in-cheek, long-term, emission-free, state-of-the-art, full-scale, run-of-the-mill, three-dimensional and many others
  • How far do you go? It starts to look a bit silly if you glue more than three or four words together that way. In actual speech, you probably wouldn’t often use compound adjectives of more than four or five syllables. So I’d suggest that if you need much more than that, you probably ought to be rephrasing anyway.

Style guides will vary in the fine details, but that’s the basic rule for most. Some will for example state that you shouldn’t hyphenate where an adverb is involved (for instance fully fledged), though I see little wrong with the hyphenated form. If it’s a potentially spoken phrase, some prefer to punctuate it as such, for instance an “I’m alright Jack” attitude or a “you must be joking” face, which looks neater to me too.

Prevalence: endemic. At any rate when combined with other forms of hyphen misuse, it’s one of the top five common mistakes. Perhaps because the rules are a bit different than in Dutch; but there are plenty whose mother tongue is English who make slip-ups too.
Frequency: very high. It turns up all over the place, often inconsistently.
Native: yes. Plenty of scope for the natives to botch this one up as well.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “A dull-as-ditchwater subject

    1. Ja, vooral de eerste: we hebben het ‘tig keer aan de NS moeten uitleggen, die niet snapten waarom “door to door” soms wel en soms zonder koppeltekens stond. Inconsequent, dachten ze.


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