Punctuation: Hyphenating compound modifiers

April 23, 2009: Issue 286

You think gay marriage and corporate bailouts stir debate? Try asking two grammarians whether to hyphenate a compound modifier.

The rule seems simple. Hyphenate a compound modifier before a noun:
stone-ground flour
fourth-generation gardener
step-by-step guide

But here comes the big exception. Don’t hyphenate a well-established compound when it functions as a modifier:
health care plan
feed sack quilt
flea market treasures

And that’s where things get fuzzy. What counts as well-established?

First check the SIM Stylebook word list and Webster’s 11th. If a compound is listed there, hyphenate it accordingly.

Otherwise, a good test is to imagine yourself on the game show Password. Could you use the first half of the compound as a clue for the second? (“Fleeeeaaaaa …”  “Market!”) If so, it’s well-established and doesn’t need a hyphen.

Another good question to ask is whether a hyphen is necessary for clarity:

small kitchen ideas
Readers will understand that we’re talking about ideas for small kitchens, not small ideas for kitchens.

When a phrase works with or without a hyphen, let’s err on the side of leaving it out—especially when writing for the Web. Readers rarely use hyphens in their search terms. They’ll type “small kitchen ideas,” not “small-kitchen ideas.”

Still have questions? Find more about hyphenating compound modifiers, along with detailed examples.

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