He seemed to have tree-trunk-like legs.

How do you hyphenate a hyphenated word, properly, and grammatically?

  • 2
    tree-trunk-like legs, but legs like tree-trunks would be more natural. May 4 '17 at 16:24
  • That's an example of he-who-must-not-be-named. May 4 '17 at 16:42

There's actually a lot of variation on this point.

"Tree trunk" is usually written with a space ("tree trunk"). [link]  The suffix "–like" can be written either solid (e.g. "trunklike") or with a hyphen (e.g. "trunk-like"). [link]  So I wouldn't be surprised to see either of these:

  1. tree trunklike legs
  2. tree trunk-like legs

But when a compound noun precedes and modifies another noun, it's often hyphenated, even if the compound noun is otherwise usually written with a space. Obviously "tree trunk[-]like" isn't a compound noun, but "tree trunk" is, and the phrase as a whole precedes and modifies legs, so I also wouldn't be surprised to see either of these:

  1. tree-trunklike legs
  2. tree-trunk-like legs

What makes your case especially tricky is that grammatically, it parses as {{tree trunk}like} rather than as {tree {trunklike}}, so #1–3 above are all a bit awkward in that they make it look like the "–like" attaches only to the "trunk". Many people will address that by choosing #4, but the more typographically savvy may also address it by separating the "–like" with an en dash, which is much like a hyphen except that it's physically a bit longer and indicates a somewhat greater separation. So I also wouldn't be surprised to see either of these:

  1. tree trunk–like legs
  2. tree-trunk–like legs

Personally, I would probably go with #6, but I think either #4 or #5 would also be fine.

That said, for your specific sentence, I wouldn't recommend this phrasing anyway; I find it much more natural to say "He seemed to have legs like tree trunks". For that matter, I would probably drop the "seemed" — I don't think it adds anything — and just say "He had legs like tree trunks", or "His legs were like tree trunks."

I'd only suggest the "tree-trunk–like" approach if something more were being said about the tree-trunk–like legs:

His tree-trunk–like legs betrayed his Entish origin.

  • I think, yes. Indeed. I think I had seen something about a, maybe, en-dash.
    – saySay
    May 11 '17 at 21:52

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