When (and When Not) to Hyphenate Compound Modifiers
- On June 18, 2019
The Coast Guard cleared the beach because of a man-eating fish.
In that example, man-eating is an example of a compound modifier: two or more words that express a single concept to describe a noun, in this case fish.
Sometimes compound modifiers are hyphenated, and sometimes they’re not.
How to know?
The rule of thumb is to hyphenate if not doing so would confuse the reader (or cause even a momentary misreading) as could happen with the example above. But you can skip the hyphen if the compound term is generally recognized as a phrase and its meaning is clear. Take a look at the following examples:
- We’re creating better customer experience journeys for our clients. No hyphen necessary between customer and experience.
- We’re committed to delivering high quality products. No hyphen necessary between high and quality.
Some publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, hyphenate across the board. I’m all for clarity—that should be everyone’s No. 1 goal—but the effect of all those hyphenated words can be clunky.
A few final notes: Compound modifiers that include an adverb (words that end in ly) never get hyphenated, while those that include well always do (when they come before the noun), for example, She is a well-known musician. But you would write, The musician is well known (no hyphen) because the term is following the noun.