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I have a sentence which has an object that is described with an adjective:

We need to inform our interested patrons of this change.

If I modify "interested" with "more" or "less", do I connect the words with a hyphen or not? Example sentence:

We need to inform our less-interested patrons of this change.


Also, please let me know if I have not used the correct terms for sentence parts in this question.

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Some context to this question - I was recently corrected by removal of a hyphen I had used in a case similar to this. –  NickC Apr 14 '11 at 23:18
    
Strictly speaking, you would never use a dash to form a compound adjective, but you might use a hyphen. –  John Y Apr 15 '11 at 1:30
    
@John Thanks, changed. –  NickC Apr 15 '11 at 3:55
    
anytime someone answers your question, or when the answer is really helpful, you should choose it as the correct answer. Cheers. –  Thursagen Jun 22 '11 at 22:53
    
@Ham thanks, I know, I actually just hadn't noticed since I have pretty low activity on this site. –  NickC Jun 23 '11 at 14:36
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to Whitesmoke, "Hyphens are used to link words that function as a single adjective before a noun."
But the stronger rule seems to be, if a hyphen would reduce confusion, use it. IMHO, a hyphen makes your example read more clearly... but according to this Wikipedia article, "Compound adjectives that include comparatives and superlatives with more, most, less or least" are not normally hyphenated.
In short, there doesn't appear to be a hard-and-fast rule (wait, should I have not hyphenated that?).

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I agree with Dizzwave that the rule should be this: use hyphens only where they reduce confusion.

In the case of "our more educated patrons", "more" is an adverb that modifies the adjective/participle "educated", which is quite regular; it cannot be taken as an adjective, because "our more" would prevent that; therefore there is no substantial confusion that could or need be solved. The same applies to "less educated" in nearly every context.

In "our college-educated patrons", there are several ways the reader could theoretically be led onto a false scent:

Our college educated patrons of nearby establishments so as to improve their table manners.

They told our college educated patrons should be seated at the back of the hall [= They told our college that educated patrons...].

The reason why "college" is more prone to confusion is that it is a noun: nouns are most of the time more fundamental elements in the construction of a sentence, and nouns most of the time do not modify other words.

That is not to say that adjectives/adverbs cannot be confusing. In fact they too require hyphens in some cases, as in the following example:

A fast dying rabbit

Is the rabbit fast but dying, or is it dying fast? If the former, a comma should be added; if the latter, a hyphen. The reason why "fast" can be troublesome is that it doesn't take the regular adverbial suffix -ly that most other adverbs do.

This rule means that compound adjectives normally do not require hyphens for clarity if they are used predicatively, i.e. as subject complement with a copula, such as after "to be":

Most of our patrons are college educated.

One last thing to consider is consistency: it is generally easier for everyone if the same phrase or word is written exactly the same everywhere; this makes it easier to recognise for eye and mind. That could be an argument for using hyphens in compound adjective universally, even where there is no confusion. However, current practice and nearly all style books find this argument too weak and stick to the rule "use hyphens only to reduce confusion".

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For the A fast dying rabbit example, which stylistic tendency do you think is more at work if neither hyphen nor comma are present; oxford-comma-type omission of the comma or less-confusion-is-better omission of the hypen? –  mfg Apr 15 '11 at 15:49
    
@mg: Ehm, I'd probably take it as an omitted hyphen then: the rabbit was fast dying. But that depends on context. // That isn't the Oxford comma, though, which is used before "and" and "or" in enumerations of three or more items: "I like beetles, bumblebees, and butterflies". The comma before "and" is the Oxford comma; the one after "beetles" is nothing special, nor is the one in "the fast, dying rabbit". –  Cerberus Apr 15 '11 at 15:58
    
There's also the fast-dyeing rabbit, which (assuming it's not just a spelling mistake) would conjure up another whole swathe of alternative readings involving permanence as well as speed. –  FumbleFingers Apr 15 '11 at 16:22
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I think it depends whether the two words function as a unit or not.

I asked our more educated patrons to sit at the front

versus

I asked our college-educated patrons to sit at the front

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