As I understand it, we are to hyphenate phrases which consist of several adjectives strung together to form a single thought. I would, therefore, assume "non-combat-related injury" is the proper hyphenation of the phrase. "Non-combat" should be hyphenated, without question, but should the hyphen exist between "combat" and "related"? Normally I would assume so, but attempting to Google it, I find that most of the top hits suggest "non-combat related injury" is standard. It sounds like it is a related injury (!?) of the non-combat variety (umm...), but apparently, it's standard.

I was just going to run with it until I realized I also had to use the phrase "combat-related injury" wherein the hyphen does, commonly, come between combat and related - as expected.

Should I stick to the standard hyphenation ("non-combat related injury") or try to smooth things over grammatically by saying "non-combat-related injury"? Or am I overthinking it? Or am I missing something obvious?

  • 1
    For what it's worth, I prefer non-combat-related injury, and for the reason you give. But then, I'm not going to suffer the wrath of a stickler-for-rules editor. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:04
  • Non-combat-related seems more popular on a google ngram: tinyurl.com/am8ogrx Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:20
  • @spiceyokooko sadly they don't seem to distinguish non-combat related and non–combat related, so I can't judge if my preference has any agreement or not. Then again, google books sometimes confuses f and ſ so ngrams differentiating - from would be expecting a lot.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:47
  • @EdwinAshworth: I agree; non-combat-related injury is the only acceptable hyphenation to most style guides, I believe. But I agree with Stoney that rephrasing is better, if possible. Injuries unrelated to combat are rare in this hospital. Or whatever fits the context. In a table, I would simply give it the title Injuries in Hospital, with column A named Related to Combat, and column B Other, or possibly Not Related to Combat. Or something with incurred, and in combat v. outside combat. I think there will nearly always be a better solution. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 1:02
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    @Cerberus: Yes. Multi-hyphenated premodifiers tend to break the don't-be-clumsy and don't-be-hard-to-make-sense-of rules if not the don't-be-ambiguous rule. They're suitable only in half-witty dialogue. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


Let's overthink this together.

The basic structure is non- + X, meaning “not X”; and X in this case is the hyphenated “combat-related”; argal, non-combat-related. So your initial instinct was (to my mind) correct.

But as you realize, that’s not a very happy result. What you’re trying to do is to distinguish injuries which are “related to combat” from those which are “not related to combat”. By taking “combat-related” rather than “related to combat” as your base form, you’re essentially locking yourself into a structure in which further hyphenation must give rise to an ambiguity: does non- apply to combat or to combat-related — or possibly only to related?

When that happens to me I take it as a sign that I’m treating the syntax as if it were a mathematical formula instead of an organism. I’m trying to push the language in a direction it’s not designed to go. So I look for a way to rewrite. I see several options:

  1. combat-related injury / combat-unrelated injury ... unambiguous, but not to my ear English.
  2. combat injury / non-combat injury ... acceptable (what does -related add to your discussion?), but may not suit the context—for instance, you may be dealing with a DoD-defined category named “combat-related”.
  3. combat-related injury / injury, not combat-related ... truly awful, but at one time pretty much the US Armed Forces standard
  4. combat-related injury / other injury ... the bureaucratic throw-your-hands-in-the-air solution.
  5. CR injury / non-CR injury or even NCR injury ... ugly, but if your publisher buys in it saves typing, so somebody wins something.
  6. combat-related injury / injury not related to combat ... ponderous, but unambiguous.

My vote would be 2 if it will fly, 6 if it won't—and *combat-related / not combat-related if you're dealing with DoD rules.

  • +1 I agree with your judgement of options 1–6. But non-combat-related is absolutely fine. It is acceptable to the same extent as it is in speech: the problem lies with combining three elements into an adjective, not with the hyphenation. If anything, the hyphenation makes it less cumbersome, not more. If the OP really need such a long adjective, I beg him to use two hyphens; one hyphen is misleading. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:56
  • Your claim to ambiguity, "does non- apply to combat or to combat-related" isn't really an ambiguity. It offers up the difference between an injury not related to combat, and an injury related to non-combat. But unless we allow for injuries that have no cause, then all injuries that are not related to combat, are related to some non-combat incident or disease. Hence the difference between the two, makes no difference, and a difference that makes no difference, is not a difference.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 0:57
  • @JonHanna: Not so much ambiguity, but a parsing error: I would go "huh?" and reread the phrase to make sure only one interpretation was possible, because the default reading sounds ungrammatical (though not semantically ambiguous in the broadest sense). I write this manner 'n' you are will understand no problem, and yet it makes your brain hurt—TELL ME FORM DOESN'T ADD TO OR DETRACT FROM CONTENT.* Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 1:04
  • ﹡⁾ ᵀʰᵉ ᶜᵃᵖᶦᵗᵃᶫˢ ᵃʳᵉ ᵃᶰᵒᵗʰᵉʳ ᵈᵉᵐᵒᶰˢᵗʳᵃᵗᶦᵒᶰ ᵒᶠ ᶦᶰᶠᵉᶫᶦᶜᶦᵗᵒᵘˢ ˢᵗʸᶫᵉ ᶜʰᵒᶦᶜᵉˢ⋅ Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 1:11
  • @JonHanna Unhappily, it's not that simple. A combat-related injury may be incurred in the course of non-combat (or noncombat) activities, and injury incurred in the course of combat operations may not be combat-related. See this, esp. 6302. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 1:33

Short answer: They're both acceptable, as is "non–combat related injury" with an en dash. If you're a stickler for typographic difference, you might well favour "non–combat related" over "non-combat related".

Long answer:

Starting with combat-related/combat related first, to use that as a starting point: In combining combat and related we create a new modifier that acts as an adjective. For such compounds we may or may not hyphenate, to create hyphenated compounds or open compounds respectively.*

In deciding which to go for, the main thing to remember is that the point of the hyphen is to indicate to the reader that the two words form a single modifier. The more likely they are to misread it otherwise, the more we would want to lean toward hyphenating.

We would never hyphenate a proper noun or adjective ("North American writer", not "North-American writer") and we never hyphenate adverb-adjective pairs where the adverb modifies the adjective ("surprisingly long explanation", not "surprisingly-long explanation", at least not since the 19th Century).

We would probably not hyphenate a pair of words that formed a familiar term in itself ("high school sports" not "high-school sports"). One way to judge is to consider whether you'd be surprised to find it standing on its own in a dictionary or encyclopaedia (more so than whether you actually would find it - they can have some obscure things sometimes!).

We would definitely hyphenate something that could easily be interpreted differently without the hyphen ("a man-eating tiger" is a dangerous thing, but "a man eating tiger" is putting novel gastronomic experience above concerns for endangered species).

In between there is much more room for personal preference and disagreements.

My personal approach is to consider if I'd glanced at it and saw it from half-way through the modifier would I misinterpret it as something very wrong. I might take "resistant coating" to be some sort of coating that generally made the item it was applied to more resistant to wear, tear and staining, so if it was part of "fire-resistant coating" I would hyphenate it. If I saw "related injury" I would wonder "what-related?" and scan back, so to me "combat related injury" is fine.

Again though, that's just my personal approach to the cases where either choice is valid. I wouldn't argue against other choices, and some style guides might have something to say on the matter.

Now, when we add non, we are creating a compound out of terms where one is already a compound. Here we normally use an en dash for the further compounding: "pro-privatisation–anti-privatisation debate", "Turner Prize–winning artist".

But non is a prefix that is never used on it's own, and in this case, if the compound we already have is hyphenated, then we would almost never use a dash, as the longer symbol with the short item that isn't a full word followed by the shorter symbol, can be visually distracting. Also, some people just simply don't bother with en dashes in the open compound case, either.

So, for the positive form (without the non) we can have either of:

combat related injury

combat-related injury

And for the negative form, we can have either of:

non–combat related injury

non-combat-related injury

And if we just don't care about figuring out how to type a dash on a given computer:

non-combat related injury

Is okay too.


non–combat-related injury

is questionable.

(FWIW, I'd go for "combat related" and "non–combat related").

*There are also closed compounds like dishcloth, which complicates things even more. Luckily, since these are normally a compound of two or more nouns that create a new noun, we don't need to consider them here.

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