A Word, Please: Use hyphens for ambiguity-free writing

Language has rules. For people who aren’t too confident in their writing and grammar skills, the rules can be very useful, helping determine things like which verb form to use and where to put a period relative to a closing quotation mark.

But for people who are already well versed in the basics, the No. 1 rule of language may be this: Rules will fail you. Sometimes common sense can and should overrule the rules. Other times, when you have a very specific question, there are no rules. You’re on your own.

Nowhere is this truer than in the intricacies of hyphenation, as evidenced by this question from reader Lisa: “In the following excerpt, exactly which bits are hyphenated? I have placed the hyphen where I think it should go: ‘His new fur coat-wearing boss.’ However, perhaps that would be confusing? Readers could think fur is the object, rather than boss. So maybe: ‘His new fur-coat-wearing boss.’ But that looks odd.”

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If you’re hoping for a definitive answer, you have to check multiple language guides. If they all agree, you know you have a pretty solid rule on your hands. But I’ll save you the trouble: They don’t. There’s no consensus on how to hyphenate terms like this. There’s only general guidance on hyphenation. Luckily, much of that guidance is good. Here’s the Associated Press Stylebook’s overview of how to use hyphens.

“Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words. Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion. (‘Small-business owner’ but ‘health care center’). … Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted. ‘The president will speak to small-business men’ (‘businessmen’ normally is one word, but ‘The president will speak to small businessmen’ is unclear).”

This advice applies mainly when joining whole words with each other. Prefixes and suffixes are a little different. And though this general “avoid ambiguity” advice guides prefix and suffix hyphenation, too, those rules get more specific and complicated. For example, if you think “pre1960" is an unambiguous as “pre-1960,” that doesn’t make it right. The hyphen is requisite.

Another deviation from the basic rule: adverbs ending in “ly” aren’t hyphenated. But we’re getting too far from Lisa’s original question about “his new fur coat-wearing boss.”

Unlike AP’s examples, this compound has more than two words. But that doesn’t matter. You can use hyphens to join as many words as you want, as long as those words work together to form a single idea. And that’s where things get difficult. I call these “compounds of uncertain scope.”

Imagine your steak has been dry aged for 30 days. Is it a 30-day dry-aged steak, with two hyphens? Or is it a 30-day-dry-aged steak, with three hyphens?

I once asked three professional copy editors how they would hyphenate this. Two said two hyphens, the third said three hyphens. Me? I’d go for three because I think it’s important to note that “30-day” and “dry-aged” are not independent of each other. If you take out “dry-aged” you’re left with a “30-day steak,” which is nonsense.

Which brings us back to Lisa’s “new fur-coat wearing boss”: What’s new, here? The boss or her coat? If the employee or the boss recently assumed the job — and if rewriting wasn’t an option — I’d go with “his new fur-coat-wearing boss.” If the coat is new, I’d go with “his new-fur-coat-wearing boss.”

That is, a “fur coat-wearing boss” has the same structure as “surly coat-wearing boss,” with “surly” directly modifying “boss.” What’s surly? The person, not the coat.

But if the coat’s new, “new-fur-coat-wearing boss” is the best way to be clear. It may look odd, as Lisa pointed out. But it tells the reader that he need not wait for the noun to know what’s new.


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