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I am editing a bit of text, and I need to know: should there be a hyphen in the following passage?

"While transecting the designated territory, survey-team members collected numerous artifacts."

Could it just be "survey team members"? Or "survey team-members"?

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They are members of a survey team, so the three-word compound is produced from the two-word compound of survey + team and the word members.

Hence the logical possibilities of all the permutations of closed, open and hypenated are:

  1. survey team members (all open).
  2. surveyteam members (closed + open)
  3. surveyteammembers (all closed)
  4. survey-team members (hyptenated + open)
  5. survey team–members (open and dash)
  6. survey-team–members (hyphenated and dash).
  7. surveyteam-members (closed and hypen).

Note that we don't try closing team and members if we haven't closed survey and team, as we would never close a compound where part of the compound was itself an open or hyphenated compound.

Note also that we use an en-dash (–) not a hyphen (-) when part of a compound is itself an open or hyphenated compound.

Now, of those possibilities, closed compounds are not common in English, unless the term is heavily used, or we are seeking to coin a specific new meaning, so let's remove them from the list:

  1. survey team members (all open).
  2. survey-team members (hyptenated + open)
  3. survey team–members (open and dash)
  4. survey-team–members (hyphenated and dash).

These are each cases one could make an argument for, and it becomes more a matter of judgement now. One guide is to consider the possibility of misreading if one's eye happened upon the right most part of the compound. Since members must be members of something, if our eye hits upon "members" alone on a page, we're going to seek to find out what they are members of, so the en-dash offers little to help. We can therefore dismiss the two possibilities that use a dash:

  1. survey team members (all open).
  2. survey-team members (hyptenated + open)

Of the remaining two, there's less to argue very strongly in favour of one or the other. I started writing this answer thinking I was going to say both of these could be reasonably chosen, but I'd lean toward that with the hyphen. I now think I'd lean toward that with no hyphen. They're definitely both allowable, there's only matters of taste and preference to pick between them. As a tie-breaker, hyphenated forms seem to be increasingly less common, which argues for using the fully-open "survey team members".

I would possibly change my mind in the context of the wider piece. If there were other teams involved in what it described, that would lean me toward hyphenating, because the risk of misreading without it has increased. Conversely, if the survey team/survey-team are mentioned repeatedly, that would lean me against hyphenating, as the repetition of the phrase decreases the risk of misreading, and slightly increases the visual irritation of the hyphen.

If you're writing or editing to a particular style-guide, then what it has to say about compound nouns over-rules this, though even they can be quite vague on this matter, some times.

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