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A Word, Please: A great unifier offers connection and clarity

In our society, we entrust certain individuals with immense power based, in large part, on our sincere belief and hope that they’ll act as unifiers, not dividers.

It’s a tall order.

Sure, it’s easy to bring together those already close to each other. But the ability to reach out, across a divide, to join diverse players so they can all work together as one — that’s true leadership.

That’s why, regardless of stripe or creed, we should all seize the opportunity to make full use of the talents of the greatest unifier at our disposal.


I’m speaking, of course, about the hyphen.

The hyphen’s great unifying powers struck me after a friend emailed with a question about suspensive hyphenation. If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t feel bad. Except for professional editors, like my friend, most people aren’t.

Suspensive hyphenation comes in handy when you want to say that a business is family-owned and it’s also family-operated, but you don’t want to repeat the word “family.”

“Back when the family-owned and -operated restaurant first opened its doors, a cup of coffee cost 50 cents.”


The hyphen joining “family” with “owned” is doing one of the hyphen’s traditional jobs in a traditional way, connecting two words to make a single compound adjective that describes a third word, in this case, “restaurant.”

The hyphen attached to “operated” doesn’t touch two words. It’s attached to just one, with its other side suspended in midair to show it connects to a word elsewhere in the sentence. That’s suspensive hyphenation. When you look at our example sentence without the hyphens, you start to see how useful this trick is.

“Back when the family owned and operated …"

Seven words into the unhyphenated version of our sentence, it’s not clear that “owned” and “operated” aren’t working as verbs. The sentence might as well read “Back when the family owned and operated the restaurant, a cup of coffee cost just 50 cents.”

But our original sentence doesn’t intend “owned” and “operated” to work as verbs. Instead, they’re participial modifiers — adjectives derived from verbs, such as “painted” in “a painted fence” or “defeated” in “a defeated rival.”

If our sentence had no hyphens, some readers would start off down the wrong path, realizing only when they arrived at the eighth word, “restaurant,” that the true verb of the clause is yet to come.

That’s what hyphens are supposed to do: eliminate potential confusion. A human-eating lobster is very different from a human eating lobster. Suspensive hyphenation is just a way to extend that power to multiple words in the sentence so they can work as one with another term placed farther away.

But it’s not just the first word of a compound that can be shared this way. That is, in “family-owned and -operated,” the two compounds share the first word, “family.” But in compound like “carbon- or silicon-based,” the second half of the compound, “based,” is shared.


This brings us to my editor friend’s question: Where do the hyphens go in: “patients receiving a lenalidomide (Revlimid) or bortezomib (Velcade) based treatment”?

Should the hyphens attach to “lenalidomide” and “bortezomib,” or should you tack them right onto the closing parentheses that follow?

The answer: There is no answer. None of the major style or usage guides discuss how to hyphenate a term with an intervening parenthetical. In my experience, the most logical place to attach a hyphen would be to the closing parenthesis: “a lenalidomide (Revlimid)-based treatment.” But would hyphens in that sentence really aid the reader? I don’t think so.

Hyphen rules say to use them when they make things clearer, which means you can skip them when they don’t. In this case, I’d say they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

Because, like all great unifiers, hyphens know when to get involved and when to just stay away.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at