While reading the 'Guide to the use of the dictionary' of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (yes, I read dictionary introductions, shame on me), I stumbled upon a section about hyphenation with regards to noun compounds, specifically upon the following sentence:

[...] hyphens are also used to show a word's grammatical function. [...] so that you would write for example I used my credit card but credit-card debt.

What is not clear to me is the sentence 'hyphens are used to show a word's grammatical function'. If I understand the concept of 'grammatical function' correctly, then this sentences doesn't make much sense to me, because then one would have to add hyphens to every grammatical object, because every grammatical object has a function in a sentence.

Am I correct in saying that I can take this sentence to mean something like 'hyphens are also used when the grammatical function of noun compounds is to be an adjective of the following noun'? Or is there maybe some sense of the term 'grammatical function' that I am missing?

  • 3
    I believe the problem you are having here stems from the fact that you have rephrased the definition by a single word which is crucial to understanding. If you say "hyphens are also used," it is very different in implication from "hyphens are used." The first, which is as it is in the dictionary itself, merely points out one additional possible use of hyphens. The second leads to your incorrect interpretation, namely that hyphens must be added to every grammatical object. I hope this helps. Even single words in English can have a HUGE impact on meaning. Sep 21, 2013 at 19:10
  • @JohnM.Landsberg On second thought, I think that the sentence might still be a bit misleading: supposing that your interpretation is correct, that sentence could also mean that a noun compound could always be written with hyphens: I am using my credit-card. Following that definition, this would be correct, because hyphens would show the word's grammatical function, which in this case is a noun instead of an adjective. Sep 21, 2013 at 20:04
  • 1
    I'd wager that the sentence as you have given it 'is misleading' because you haven't supplied the context. If you're really concerned about the grammar involved rather than the possible shortcomings of a particular dictionary, I suggest you look here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyphen#Compound_modifiers (though this topic has been covered here before). Sep 21, 2013 at 20:24
  • 1
    What they are attempting to show is that there is a differentiation in the usage; if and when you do put a hyphen into it, it creates a different meaning and purpose, essentially making a single adjective out of a compound noun. Whenever you put the hyphen in, it creates this effect, so it wouldn't make sense always to do that. Sep 22, 2013 at 5:53
  • 1
    You are misreading what “show a word’s grammatical function” means. It does not mean “show that a word has a grammatical function” (that would be utterly senseless, since all lexical words have a grammatical function), but “show what a word’s grammatical function is”; in other words, the hyphen is used in some cases and not in others, precisely to show the different grammatical functions compounds have. Sep 22, 2013 at 8:34

1 Answer 1


Sort of. What they mean is something to the effect of "noun+noun compounds are hyphenated when they themselves form part of a "((noun+noun)+noun)" compound. I guess they may extend this to other types of compounds-- you'd need to read the full article to see. (In "credit(-)card debt"-- it doesn't matter whether you hyphenate it or not-- "credit card" is still essentially a noun, but that's not particularly crucial to our point here.)

Now, that all sounds very logical. But there's just one problem: in actual practice, the rule that they suggest isn't actually followed necessarily. Instead, it's very common to simply write "credit card debt".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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