8

When do we add a hyphen (-) to a complex adjective word?

Here are a few examples:

This is an Xbox-compatible game.

This is a Creation-Kit-compatible 3d asset.

This is a SkyRe-compatible Skyrim mod.

More often than not all these examples are used without a hyphen or hyphens. Is this a case of people making a grammatical mistake or are both forms completely correct and it's just a matter of preference?

  • The hyphen is used to indicate that it is a morphological compound word consisting of two bases, as opposed to a syntactic construction consisting of head+modifier. – BillJ Mar 15 at 6:58
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    My employer couldn't read my signature, so I re-signed the contract. Afterwards, I resigned. – Strawberry Mar 15 at 15:29
  • Robusto's and fred2's answers don't address a situation which often causes doubt as to whether to write a hyphenated word or two separate words, namely, where the second is an adjective, and the first is an adverb modifying it. This answer to another question might help. – Rosie F Mar 15 at 19:11
16

This is not a question of grammar, but of style. Writers use hyphens with compound adjectives to avoid ambiguity so that the reader does not have to read and re-read a sentence to garner the meaning from it.

Consider:

John was a white bearded man.

Someone might try to parse this sentence at first to mean he was a white man who had a beard.

John was a white-bearded man.

This makes it quite clear that John was a man with a white beard, not a white man with a beard.

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    So both can mean the same thing, but the other is more precise in its meaning? – repomonster Mar 15 at 0:58
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    Yes. Consider hyphenating compound adjectives as providing a courtesy to your readers. – Robusto Mar 15 at 0:59
  • "John was a white-bearded man" does not rule out the possibility that John was a white man with a white beard. – Jasper Mar 15 at 1:58
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    @Jasper: That is irrelevant. The statement does not rule that out, nor does it rule out that he is a criminal or a spendthrift or an asthmatic. The only facts that can be determined from the statement involve his having a white beard. That is unambiguous, and it is everything that modest statement hoped to accomplish. – Robusto Mar 15 at 3:50
  • @Jasper That's a white red-herring. As opposed to a white-red herring, which is pink. (See also: "There he was left, hand on the wheel" and "there he was, left-hand on the wheel") – Chronocidal Mar 15 at 16:47
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Robusto's answer is correct, I'm just adding another thought.

You asked:

Is this a case of people making a grammatical mistake or are both forms completely correct and it's just a matter of preference?

Robusto didn't quite address that question head on. While there is a lot of flexibility in punctuation, I would say any professional editor worth his or her salt would correct 'white bearded' to 'white-bearded'. Leaving out the hyphen is not optional.

Yes, in informal contexts, writers very often leave out the hyphens, either because they are unsure how to use them, or they forget. But that's not the same as saying they are optional. They are making a mistake which can lead to misunderstandings, and knowing how and why to use hyphens in compound adjectives places you at an advantage.

Finally, often with punctuation, we say "well, it doesn't exist in spoken English, so is it really required?"

But in spoken English there is an audible difference between

The white, bearded man.

and

The white-bearded man.

It's subtle, but it's there, and it makes all the difference to the interpretation of the sentence.

  • The audible difference is that, in the former, there is a short pause which is absent in the latter. – John Bentin Mar 15 at 8:30
  • @JohnBentin Agreed, and I would add that I wouldn’t think of the comma as necessarily representing the pause or vice versa. I think the comma and the pause serve the same purpose: distinction. – Chase Ryan Taylor Mar 15 at 20:44
  • "But in spoken English there is an audible difference between" Although I did once spend a few moments wondering what a "blackhead coach" is due to an announcer's poor prosody. – Acccumulation Mar 15 at 20:48

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