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so called or so-called?

Which one is the more appropriate way to indicate that you are going to refer to something using a description that you doubt the validity of?

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  • 1
    "so-called" is the formal use, but no one will misunderstand you if you use "so called". The phrase is used when you are skeptical about something, either in the case of an imposter or if you believe that a title is undeserved. "This so-called Doctor couldn't even recognize a melanoma when he saw one" or, "This so-called princess is an impostor" – mstorkson Dec 21 '16 at 15:16
  • 2
    The "crunch point" for me in this context is that I'd use the two-word form when it's not a straightforward noun adjunct usage (adjectivally placed before a noun). So it's We know them as "remoaners" - so called because they're still moaning about the referendum result, as opposed to He's one of the so-called "remoaners". – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '16 at 16:28
  • Both of these comments look like they would be good answers to me - any reason you've decided to post them as comments instead of answers? – 3N1GM4 Dec 21 '16 at 16:46
  • This NGram says quite a lot: books.google.com/ngrams/… – JavaLatte Dec 21 '16 at 17:56
  • @3N1GM4 this happens frequently on ELL. Etiquette says that it is perfectly fine to steal these comments and use them to post your own answer (although I usually credit the source) – Andrew Dec 21 '16 at 18:03
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GrammarBook has a nice explanation of whether to use hyphens in a situation like this:

Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.

The usage that you suggest is as an adjective that modifies a noun:

That so-called builder doesn't even know how to mix cement!

If, as FumbleFingers suggests, so called does not modify a noun (which it usually precedes), there should not be a hyphen, for example:

QUAKERs are so called because they had a particular manner in their meetings of shaking and quaking. - Memoirs of the Rev. Ammi Rogers

This is not the meaning that you want: it means "That is what they are called because..."

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While it is fine to use "so called", as JavaLatte shows in his comment, nowadays it's much more frequent to use the dash, "so-called", which is how I always write it. Also, the following word should be emphasized in some way, most commonly with quotes but also italics are fine (if that formatting is available)

There are many comments answering this question, but this is the so-called "answer".

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As with so many situations, context is key. Given the right context either can be used and easily understood

He is a so called friend.
She is a so-called beauty.

Because the hyphen ("-") links the two words as a single unit, using

so-called

is unambiguous. In the two sentences

Tom was confused and so called a lost soul.
Tom was confused and so-called a lost soul.

Is Tom being called a "lost soul" or is he phoning a "lost soul" for directions?
The first sentence might be understood as Tom calling "a lost soul" for directions.
The second sentence would be understood as Tom being called "a lost soul".

Using "so-called" refers to a usual name or designation without "doubt about validity", but there may be doubt about appropriateness. "So called" might be considered equivalent to "people call it", "it has been called".

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