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If multiple hyphenated terms share the same latter half, and I wish to list them without repeating that latter half, how should the hyphens be placed?

For example:

I will be investigating control issues in ground-based, water-based, and air-based robots.

If I do not want to repeat based, could I write:

I will be investigating control issues in ground-, water-, and air-based robots.

Is it correct to just leave a hyphen dangling after ground and water?

If not, how should it be written? I know the original sentence doesn't sound too bad, but I really just want to know the punctuation rule (or the convention in American English if there is no rule).

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  • I believe Fowler (perhaps the most renowned of all English style books) recommends omitting the hyphens in such cases. The reasoning behind this is that it is readable enough without hyphens. May 7, 2013 at 18:16
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    I don't believe that omission of hyphens is always going to be unambiguous. "We really have to prepare the ground- and sea-based forces." would be garden-pathy if not ambiguous. May 7, 2013 at 18:54
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    The term for this is suspended hyphen. Wikipedia has a paragraph on it, and we have a dedicated tag.
    – RegDwigнt
    Apr 4, 2014 at 22:58
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    This discussion was really hard to google—but I found it 😅 Jul 4, 2018 at 22:37

2 Answers 2

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Burchfield's 1998 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage says under hyphen, listing its uses:

6 To represent a common second element in all but the last word of a list, e.g. two-, three-, or four-fold.

This usage is perfectly acceptable; and in some cases it's really essential as Edwin Ashworth has commented:

We really have to prepare the ground- and sea-based forces.

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Since the posted question is tagged as 'american-english', and since Fowler's Modern English Usage is a British English style guide, I am venturing to supplement Andrew Leach's succinct and useful answer with similar advice from an array of U.S. style guides.

From Words into Type, third edition (1974):

Suspended compounds. When successive compound adjectives have one component the same in all, this component is sometimes omitted in all except the last. The best method is to retain the hyphen in each one.

...that cut across all such school- and book-imposed subject lines.

From the U.S. Government Printing Office, A Manual of Style (1986):

6.23. Where two or more hyphenated compounds have a common basic element and this element is omitted in all but the last term, the hyphens are retained.

2- or 3-em quads, not 2 or 3-em quads

2- to 3- and 4- to 5-ton trucks

2- by 4-inch boards, but 2 to 6 inches wide

6.4-, 3.1-, and 2-percent pay raises

moss- and ivy-covered walls, not moss and ivy-covered walls

long- and short-term money rates, not long and short-term money rates

From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, revised and expanded edition (1999):

hyphen. ... Use the suspensive hyphen, rather than repeat the second part of a modifier, in cases like this: On successive days there were three-, five-, and nine-inch snowfalls.

From Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage (2006):

hyphens in suspension When hyphens join words to form a compound word, as in "round-the-clock availability," the hyphens are like links in a chain. But those hyphens may be partially unattached ("suspended") in a set of compound words that share the same end-word. For example, instead of "one-quart, two-quart, and three-quart cans," you may save space by using suspended hyphens: "one-, two-, and three-quart cans."

From The Associated Press Stylebook (2007):

SUSPENSIVE HYPHENATION:

The form: He received a 10- to 20-year sentence in prison.

From Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009):

C. Suspensive Hyphens. When two phrasal adjectives have common element at the end, and this ending portion (usually the last word) appears only with the second phrase, insert a suspensive hyphen after the unattached words to show their relationship with the common element. The hyphens become especially important when phrases are compounded in this way—e.g.:

"Detroit is ... positioning the new class of compacts as the centerpiece of an old-fashioned, '50s- and '60s-style all-out autumn advertising blitz."

"Disney money also permitted Bob Weinstein to launch Dimension Films, a division devoted to the revenue-producing horror- and teen-movie market."

"It was a four- or five-times-a-year indulgence, if that."

And from The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010):

7.84 Omission of part of a hyphenated expression. When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.

fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages

Chicago- or Milwaukee-bound passengers

but

a five-by-eight-foot rug (a single entity)

Although these U.S. style guides disagree to some extent about the preferability of using a suspensive hyphen versus repeating the end word in a series of compound modifiers that have a shared final element, they are unanimous in approving of what the original post here refers to as "leav[ing] a hyphen dangling" (as opposed to omitting it altogether) after the unique element in a pair or series of such modifiers.

Perhaps the most straightforward expression of this style advice appears in a British English style manual, The Oxford Guide to Style (2002):

Use hyphens to indicate an omitted common element in a series:

three- and six-cylinder models

two-, three-, or fourfold

upper-, middle-, and lower-class accents

echo-, endo-, and mesomorphs

countrymen and -women

I should note, however, that some U.S. style guides firmly oppose replacing a repeated element in a series with a hyphen if that element is not the end term (as in Oxford's example of "countrymen and -women"). For example, the same entry (7.84) from The Chicago Manual of Style cited above concludes with this comment:

Omission of the second part of a solid compound follows the same pattern.

both over- and underfed cats

but

overfed and overworked mules (not overfed and -worked mules)

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  • 2
    That lady is both a mother-in- and an attorney-at-law. Feb 2 at 12:20
  • @EdwinAshworth: Ugh. But but better that than a mother-in-law and -to-be. Actually—no, it's not better.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2 at 17:38
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    Attorneys-at- and mothers-in-law and -to-be. It's probably a punctuation zeugma. Feb 2 at 17:51

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