Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I found a hyphenated word , “not-technically–in-a-recession” in the sentence of September 28 New York Times’ article titled “Why Obama Is Winning,” written by co-ed columnist, Ross Douthat. It reads:

“Today, just as he predicted, the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. The year’s second-quarter growth rate was just downgraded to an anemic 1.3 percent, real household income dipped in the month leading up to the two political conventions, and the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis suggests that 2012 might turn out to be the worst not-technically-in-a-recession year in modern American history”.

I was interested in the format, “not-technically-in-X” deliberately combining six words into one word with hyphens. Why doesn’t the writer simply say “2012 might turn out to be the worst year, (though) not technically recession, in modern American history” without linking words with repetitive hyphens.

Is it a fashon, or is it a normal way to say or write “not-technically-in-an-X.”?

Do you normally write “The report is arranged with not-technically–in-statistic-accuracy?

Does a doctor inform his patient that their cancer may turn out critical not-technically-in-clinical-database?


I witnessed ubiquity (or abuse) of hyphen-linked-phrasing in the following sentence of Time magazine’s (Oct. 22) article – “The Third Debate: Obama Wins on Style and Substance” written by Joe Klein.

“This may seem petty, but it is part of the other-than-reality-based world of RushFoxland — like the alleged Apology Tour that wasn’t. That world, so far as foreign policy is concerned, came crashing down tonight.”

share|improve this question
Yoichi - I was not commenting about the quotation marks. My anser related specifically to the use of hyphens in written text. My example of verbal-visual quote marks using the fingers is a VISUAL equivalent of using hyphens. My answer say that words chained together using hyphens are intended to convey light sarcasm or irony or disbelief. FWIW I disagree with a number of the other answers, which suggest that thi si just an extension of normal usage or simply improper use. Rather, this is a purposefully and specifically intended construct. –  Russell McMahon Oct 1 '12 at 4:37
The final question of the post is unclear; it may have a typo or wrong word (eg of rather than if) and it isn't meaningful to modify the italicized phrase with the word critical. Note, not-technically–in-statistic-accuracy is unrelated to the not-technically-in-a-recession phrase; recession is a state of the economy, and while statistics may tell what economic state exists, recession itself is not a statistic –  jwpat7 Oct 1 '12 at 16:37
@Jwpat7. The examples of the last part of my question are irrelevant with recession. I’m not asking the definition of Recession. My question is simple. Is ‘the-style-of-lengthy-string-of-words’ combined with hyphen like P-Q-X-Y-Z is if not commendable, normal or creative way of writing I can emulate as a new fashion of English writing? –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 1 '12 at 20:37
@YoichiOishi, I'm not aware of adjectival hyphenated phrases being a new phenomenon or informal or ironic, and am not prepared to think otherwise without evidence, as opposed to mere assertion or argument. I think it's ok and unremarkable to use such forms when they add precision that otherwise would require more words. –  jwpat7 Oct 1 '12 at 21:35
On my 13th birthday, 56 years ago, I thanked my grandmother, in writing--complete with hyphens, for her gift of $5 with the following note: "Thank you for the much-needed-by-a-teenager present." So, this syntactic construction is, in my mind, completely unproblematic. On the other hand, the reason I remember it so well is that my parents--both teachers of English--remarked upon its "creativity". –  H Stephen Straight Oct 2 '12 at 23:21

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It is not considered a standard way to write things, is not particularly formal, and like many other informalisms, is only recently appearing with any real frequency in print.

Creating a modifier that acts like an adjective (coming before the noun in a list of modifiers) occurs in speech more than in print. Even though it is not used in formal standard speech it is more characteristic of informal academic writing, in an attempt to pack in more modifiers and qualifications.

Litotes can be used this way. (just to be clear the given example is not one of litotes, just litotes can be used to create interesting but unwieldy preposed modifiers. For example:

The not unskilled beginner...

'not unskilled' is not a single word adjective, and would normally only be allowed as the predicate: 'The beginner was not unskilled'.

A much simpler version of the given example would be to just have the prepositional phrase before the noun in the place an adjective would go (a prepositional phrase is a noun modifier too just normally after the noun):

...the worst in-a-recession year...

or even

...the in-a-recession year...

Most native speakers would balk at these shorter examples and accept the longer one (that's my reaction), but the pattern is not unheard of and can work in some circumstances (like the given one).

The standard and straightforward way to write the sentence would be:

... 2012 might turn out to be the worst year in modern American history not technically in a recession.

As to the use of hyphens, it actually makes things a bit easier to follow since the pattern is not that common. If it weren't for the extra hyphens one might attempt to parse the sentence differently, leading down a garden path.

As to the trend (is it more popular lately?), I think it has existed for a while, but the acceptance of informality in print (especially opinion editorials) has made it more easily seen.

The phenomenon of stringing along an almost a sentence before the noun (that is, not as a relative clause) occurs regularly in German and other Germanic languages.

share|improve this answer
I think the "not technically in a recession" in your "standard and straightforward" rewrite gets a bit lost. I might say, "...2012 might turn out to be the worst year in modern American history of those not technically in a recession." –  Jim Oct 1 '12 at 2:45
Mitch - I'd like to politely suggest that you have missed the point of tjhe construct used. It is a very purposeful construction not meant to get around lack of adjectives or to create a new one - it's main aim is to say that the description draws a long bow / isn't really true / beggars credibility / is a misuse of stats / is known by all to be essentially false. –  Russell McMahon Oct 1 '12 at 4:39
@RussellMcMahon: I think you have overspecialized the explanation of this particular usage. Yes, it is often used for scare quotes, as it is in this instance (and sarcasm is often a trope used in these op-ed columns), but the hyphenated sequence is also often used in other circumstances, mostly for stylistic variation and can signal informality or stream-of-consciousness writing. –  Mitch Oct 1 '12 at 12:55
@Jim: yes, I agree that my rewording is not the best, but it is an attempt at getting both a 'standard' expression and one that captures as much as possible the exact meaning of the article's expression. –  Mitch Oct 1 '12 at 12:59
By high number of views and up-votes which I did not expect, I came to think a lengthy string of hyphenated-words as in the quoted case is not very usual or neat way of writing, and I don’t need to emulate it in my writing. If Q-R-X-Y-Z-noun style notation is granted for the currency or ubiquity, users of this site wouldn’t much care this question. –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 3 '12 at 7:26

It's (usually) intended as a form of light sarcasm or irony.

James P is saying that technically, if you take the official definition of a depression, squint hard and don't look too closely, you can say with a straight face that 2012 is not a depression year; however, everyone knows that regardless of what the official figures may say, 2012 really is a depression year for all practical purposes.

More normal forms of expression (such as quote marks) tend not to convey the intended tone in which this is said. An equivalent verbal/visual equivalent may be "air quotes" (where a speaker raises both hands above shoulder level and flicks their fingers to indicate "quote marks") — i.e. while quote marks would not add the desired emphasis when written, by adding them when speaking a certain extra emphasis is added that is beyond what the words alone would easily convey. One can do this with suitable tone of voice, but it is more easily lost on the hearers.

share|improve this answer
+1 It suggests that official catchphrases are arbitrary strings of words without substantial content. A similar device is eliminating the spaces between words: capitalistrunningdog, corporationsarepeopletoo. –  StoneyB Oct 1 '12 at 1:13
@Russell McMahon. My question is not about the quotation marks (It's alright), but about vexing overuse of hyphens. –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 1 '12 at 1:14
I agree with this answer. The effect conveyed here is the use of "scare" quotes, but I think that scare quotes would be ambiguous around such a large set of words. So, hyphenating it is a clear and effective replacement for scare quotes. –  Xantix Oct 1 '12 at 3:35
Complaint, the quote was about a recession, not a depression. –  user14070 Oct 1 '12 at 15:09
+1 The New York Times is not suddenly making a major mistake that happened to slip through their proofreading process. This is clearly an example of knowing the rules of writing well enough to know when and how to break them for effect. Yoichi, please see this article about breaking the rules of grammar (though it is not specifically about hyphen usage). –  By137 Oct 1 '12 at 16:33

I think at the heart of it, this question is really just about hyphenated compound words. Granted, the "word" here is much longer than is typically seen.

There are three types of compound words:

the closed form, in which the words are melded together, such as firefly, secondhand, softball, childlike, crosstown, redhead, keyboard, makeup, notebook;

the hyphenated form, such as daughter-in-law, master-at-arms, over-the-counter, six-pack, six-year-old, mass-produced;

and the open form, such as post office, real estate, middle class, full moon, half sister, attorney general.

This website says:

Hyphens connect the words of a compound modifier that comes before the word being modified. Hyphens are not used this way with compound parts ending in -ly or made up of proper nouns or proper adjectives.

Incorrect: He is a well respected man.

Correct: He is a well-respected man.
(A compound modifier before the noun.)

Incorrect: That man is well-respected.

Correct: That man is well respected.
(The modifier follows the noun, no hyphen.)

Incorrect: That was a badly-punctuated sentence.

Correct: That was a badly punctuated sentence.
(Modifier ends in -ly, no hyphen.)

Incorrect: The South-American rain forest is home to hundreds of species of hummingbirds.

Correct: The South American rain forest is home to hundreds of species of hummingbirds.
(Modifier is proper, no hyphen.)

You may also want to look at When is it necessary to use a hyphen in writing a compound word? as it has some good information on the subject.

share|improve this answer

The use of way-too-long-to-be-taken-seriously strings of hyphenated words is definitely informal. If it's gaining traction in "serious" newspapers like the NYT, that's most likely a recent phenomenon. I know it has been used for humor (rather than sarcasm or irony) for quite some time, at least since Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide series. One example (from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe):

All this way, thought Zaphod, all this trouble, all this not-lying-on-the-beach-having-a-wonderful-time, and for what? A single chair, a single desk and a single dirty ashtray in an undecorated office.

I know his writing style influenced my own, and shortly after discovering his books, my writing took on many, many more hyphens. While I've since toned it down, I am not ashamed to admit that my fellow Adams-reading friends and I would often write letters to each other purposely trying to string together as many hyphens as we possibly could, obviously for our own amusement.

share|improve this answer

Extraordinarily-long-hyphenation is just a rather-modern-way of highlighting sarcasm and emphasizing continuity-of-idea-through-several-words, while also maintaining continuity-of-expression without sacrificing clarity or readability.

And no, it is not formal.

share|improve this answer
The only valid hyphen I see in this answer is the one in "extraordinarily-long", and even that is stylistically debatable. As such, this is not at all an example of the phenomenon being asked about. –  Marthaª Oct 15 '12 at 23:33
I'd say extraordinarily-long hyphenation is as acceptable as really-long hyphenation. Secondary (pre-) modifiers such as frighteningly, eerily, and intensifiers and downtoners (eg very, vastly, rather, quite, a little) don't take a hyphen before the adjective or adverb they modify. There is not the possibility of confusion as between thirty-year-old trees and thirty year-old trees. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '12 at 0:33
However, from Jane Straus at grammarbook.com/punctuation/hyphens.asp : When adverbs not ending in -ly are used as compound words in front of a noun [not after], hyphenate. Examples: The well-known actress accepted her award. Well is an adverb followed by another descriptive word. They combine to form one idea in front of the noun. The actress who accepted her award was well known. Well known follows the noun it describes, so no hyphen is used. A long-anticipated decision was finally made. He got a much-needed haircut yesterday. His haircut was much needed. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '12 at 11:30

It's used. Rightly or wrongly. And stacked pre-modifiers without any hyphens can be worse than those using them. The following examples are found in grammar.about.com (Richard Nordquist):

Examples and Observations:



"The board also gave third reading to a Foothills Boulevard Landfill gas emission reduction credits transfer contract authorization bylaw." (from the Prince George Citizen [British Columbia], quoted by The New Yorker, June 27, 2011)



"If you're unfamiliar with the joy of Ménière's (and I hope you are), imagine a floor-warping, ceiling-spinning, brain-churning, think-you're-gonna-die-and-afraid-you-might-not hangover and multiply that times the aftermath of a power outage at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. That's Ménière's." (Kristin Chenoweth, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. Touchstone, 2009)

share|improve this answer

Multiple-hyphen compound adjectives have been in use for considerably longer than some people might think. For example, Marilla Ricker, I Don't Know, Do You? (1916) has this sentence:

The great Ingersoll had it right when he said it [the Calvin Baptist Church] was the damned-if-you-do-and-the-damned-if-you-don't church.

A non-adjectival instance involving similar hyphenation of almost the same words appears in Ernest Newman's rview of "Mr. Le Gllienne's 'Religion of a Literary Man'" in the University Magazine and Free Review (March 1, 1894):

But even the philosophy of doing nothing has this uncomfortable side to it, that you do not know whether that will please God! You are in the pleasing old dilemma of You'll-be-damned-if-you-do, you'll-be-damned-if-you-don't.

If compound adjectives with three hyphens qualify as "lengthy combinations," we can find even earlier examples. For example, from "Preface to Our Second Decade" in Fraser's Magazine (January 1840):

In prose and verse, in speech and song, we were stunned by the profound affliction of the military Macbeaths, and the no-longer-gold-coated Peachums and Lockits of the imperial court.

From Henry Lytton Bulwer, "The Life of Lord Byron," in The Complete Works of Lord Byron (1837):

It was perhaps the not-to-be-satisfied satisfaction of a morbid mind, as well as the embarrassments of the irregular liaisons, and an ill-regulated fortune, which first induced him [Byron] to turn his thoughts upon marriage ; and there seems to have been something of seriousness in the admiration he entertained for Lady Elizabeth Forbes.

From Jeremy Bentham, Indications Respecting Lord Eldon (1825):

the consequence was—that, for every actual attendance, the Master, instead of 6s. 8d., received 1l., and that, even if inclined, no Solicitor durst omit taking out the three warrants instead of one, for fear of the not-to-be-hazarded displeasure, of that subordinate Judge and his superiors.

And from a letter of January 4, 1776, in Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho (1782):

You would, like the fabled Pelican—feed your friends with your vitals—blessed Philanthropy! oh! the delights of making happy—the bliss of giving comfort to the afflicted—peace to the distressed mind—to prevent the request from the quivering lips of indigence!—but, great God!—the inexpressible delight—the not-to-be-described rapture in soothing, and convincing the tender virgin that "You alone," &c. &c. &c.

The second quotation in Edwin Ashworth's answer reminded me of an instance of multiple-hyphen compound adjectives from my youth—the hugely popular (in the United States) anti–Vietnam War song "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" by Country Joe & the Fish, released in 1967.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.