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Opinion

A Word, Please: Some compound modifiers don’t need a hyphen to make sense

A compound modifier is two or more words working like an adjective to modify another word, usually a noun.
A compound modifier is two or more words working like an adjective to modify another word, usually a noun.
(File Photo)

Russ in New Jersey had a question about hyphens: In “northwestern California landmark” should “northwestern California” be hyphenated?

“I’m not sure if it’s simply a matter of preference or if the combination of a direction or geographic location and/or proper noun play into some rule,” he wrote.

My answer: I would never put a hyphen in “northwestern California landmark,” and I would be surprised and a little put off to see it hyphenated in a professionally edited publication. But I don’t know why I see it this way.

I’ve been doing this editing stuff so long that, in my mind, some things just are. No reason. Or at least, no reason I can remember. No one hyphenates “northwestern California landmark” so I don’t hyphenate “northwestern California landmark.”

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But of course, the answers are out there. There’s even an answer to the question of whether the N in northern should be capitalized. But first, the hyphen issue.

Note that Russ did not ask whether there’s a hyphen in northwestern California. He asked if there’s a hyphen in northwestern California landmark. There’s an important difference.

The basic rules for hyphenation deal with hyphenating compound modifiers, not just compounds.

A compound modifier is two or more words working like an adjective to modify another word, usually a noun. When you say, “I live in northwestern California,” those last two words aren’t modifying a noun. They are the noun.

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In “I saw a northwestern California landmark,” “northwestern California” is a compound modifier. It’s like an adjective modifying the noun “landmark.” So the rules would allow for the hyphen. But they don’t require one.

In fact, in a case like this, you could argue that the rules discourage hyphen use because all that business about compound modifiers is subject to a litmus test: Include the hyphen only if it helps the reader get your meaning more easily.

For example, there’s probably no need to hyphenate “high school” in “a high school student” because the hyphen isn’t needed to understand what you mean.

That’s why, I suspect, you’re not likely to see “northwestern California landmark” with a hyphen.

As for that other question raised by Russ’s email: Should “northwestern” in “northwestern California” be capitalized? Short answer: no. But there’s some gray area here, too.

No doubt you’ve seen terms like “the West” and “the East” capitalized. So why not northwestern?

Compass directions have their own set of rules for capitalization. Major editing styles agree: “In general, lowercase ‘north,’ ‘south,’ ‘northeast,’ ‘northern,’ etc., when they indicate compass direction,” instructs the AP style guide, but “capitalize these words when they designate regions.

In other words, if you’re using the direction as a sort of name for an area, capitalize it. If not, don’t. Are you driving north? That’s lowercase. Are you driving north to get to the North? That second one is uppercase.

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This whole business can get a little self-centered because if you’re from one area, it’s more distinctive in your mind than an area you don’t know as well.

Someone from Central Florida would consider that a distinctive place with a distinctive personality that deserves to be capitalized like a proper noun.

However, that same person from Central Florida might not have a clear sense of whether central Georgia is a distinct region or just a way to describe the part of Georgia at a certain point along the I-75 highway.

To navigate these uncertain waters, think of the reader. If he’s in Central Georgia, he’s more likely to consider it a distinctive region. So it could be like a proper name to him.

Also, that same reader has probably heard a lot about Southern California, so you would capitalize that. But he hears much less about northeastern Nevada, so you might want to lowercase that.

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