Consider the following use of a hyphen:

There are many bear-like animals.

Now, how does the hyphenation change if "bear" is replaced by "grizzly bear"? Which of the following would be appropriate:

There are many grizzly bear-like animals.

There are many grizzly bear -like animals.

The intended meaning is not "There are many grizzly (gray-haired) animals that resemble bears," but rather "there are many animals that resemble grizzly bears (Ursus arctos)".

  • Such a sentence is always rephrased. It would be either "many grizzly animals that are bear-like" or "many animals that are like the grizzly bear".
    – Kris
    Nov 9, 2013 at 7:05
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    Some authorities recommend using an en-dash rather than a hyphen in this case. So "grizzly bear–like animals" rather than "grizzly bear-like animals". And the other meaning could be expressed with a comma: "grizzly, bear-like animals". Nov 9, 2013 at 9:35
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    Some authorities seem never to use pens. Nov 9, 2013 at 11:20
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    @Kris I don't think that's true. What if someone said a sentence like this and you had to write it down?
    – user28567
    Dec 9, 2013 at 23:56
  • @snailboat That's the situation that tests your understanding of the dictation-taking principles: It is one of the situations where you should never use your judgment but insist on the speaker to clarify. "If in doubt, ask; do not guess." -- here's the best example case.
    – Kris
    Dec 10, 2013 at 5:29

1 Answer 1


There is no convention that uses a gap followed by a hyphen in a compound.

The construction 'grizzly bear-like animals' would be read as using two premodifiers, 'grizzly' and 'bear-like', as you fear.

One is left with the construction using a single compound premodifier needing two hyphens:

There are many grizzly-bear-like animals.

Mark Nichol explains about the need to tack together the cohesive parts of some premodifiers; though he doesn't give an exactly similar example, just as bear-like needs the tacking together* (even if used as a postmodifier), so do grizzly-bear-like and sabre-toothed-tiger-like.

I'll add a (not very elegant, I admit) variant of a classic example of the need for disambiguation where the premodifiers may possibly be grouped in ways with different meanings:

She gave him one of those sweet shop-girl smiles.

She gave him one of those sweet-shop-girl smiles.

*bearlike is given as a solid compound in most dictionaries, but this doesn't seem to be the favoured web spelling. In any case, I'd certainly opt for grizzly-bear-like over grizzly-bearlike or grizzlybearlike.

  • I encounter this problem continually with dates when writing history essays. 'A seventeenth-century viewpoint', is written hyphenated thus. But if I want to say 'A seventeenth-century-determined religious structure' presumably you are saying that that requires two hyphens. How about if I say 'a sixteenth-century, religiously-polarised, argument', can I get away with it in this way, or do I need three hyphens?
    – WS2
    Nov 9, 2013 at 7:27
  • @WS2 seventeeth century doesn't need a hyphen, if it matters at all. A minimalist 'a sixteenth century religiously polarized argument' is nice to read and unambiguous, so a better example may be needed :)
    – Kris
    Nov 9, 2013 at 8:07
  • @Kris. All of these terms must be hyphenated if they are pre-modifier compounds. That is what the OP and Edwin Ashworth's reply are all about.
    – WS2
    Nov 9, 2013 at 8:47
  • @WS2 I disagree that EA's answer says anything like 'all of these terms must be hyphenated ...'. I went to the trouble of explaining that bear-like (it is a typical 'X-like' hyphenated compound adjective) takes a hyphen, and that {grizzly bear-like} is correctly read as {grizzly and bear-like}, and that {grizzly-bear-like} is another example of 'X-like', where X, which is this time an open compound, now needs hyphenating to show cohesion and avoid ambiguity. 'A sixteenth century religiously polarised ...' contains two serial open compound adjectivals, and is unambiguous as Kris says. Nov 9, 2013 at 11:09
  • @Edwin Ashworth. So, in simple-man's language, am I therefore right in thinking that a compound pre-modifier does not need to be hyphenated, provided the meaning is unambiguous? Who is the body that determines things like this? Forgive me, please, for assuming that a central editorial policy of this site was that there is no such thing as an Academie Anglaise!
    – WS2
    Nov 9, 2013 at 17:42

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