Should "building blocks" be hyphenated? I am using the two words (or perhaps one word) as a noun. E.g.,

These axioms serve as the building-blocks of the English language.

I understand that hyphens should be used to avoid ambiguities, but in this case, a hyphen makes the sentence easier to read, rather than lessen the ambiguity of it. The actual sentence I'm using the words (or word) in is quite long, and consists of many clauses, so one might accidentally read the sentence incorrectly the first time, but once the sentence is read entirely, the reader will understand what is meant. I know this is a stretch.

  • Why would you need a hyphen? Building is a standalone adjective to the noun blocks, it's not necessary to have 'building-blocks' as a compound noun.
    – Kris
    Sep 19 '14 at 5:32
  • 1
    To put it naively @gragas, if it is "all one thing,", you use a hyphen. And as you allude to, the way you are using it can affect whether or not you should use a hyphen. Unfortunately, IMO, whether or not to use a hyphen is the same situation as deciding whether to use the new or old spelling of a quickly-evolving word. I like the hyphen in your example and I'd use it.
    – Fattie
    Sep 19 '14 at 5:47
  • 3
    @JoeBlow, such as quickly-evolving, then? :) Sep 19 '14 at 5:53
  • 1
    Precisely, old chap! heh, I didn't notice that :)
    – Fattie
    Sep 19 '14 at 5:54
  • Personally, in an article in which I use the word "buildings" a lot, such as an article on architecture, and in one or two places, I want to make specific reference to a component of the buildings, I'd probably be inclined to hyphenate "building-blocks". In an article on DNA, in which I'm referring to the four base pairs as building blocks of the genes and chromosomes, I'd be disinclined to do so.
    – brasshat
    Sep 19 '14 at 6:35

I hold that unclear writing is rude, and would not hesitate to add a hyphen when not strictly necessary. if it improves readability, but I don't see that here.

A building block is just a block used for building, and it no more needs a hyphen than "electric skillet" or "tennis shoes" needs one.


Hyphens are for special composite wording; Ice-cream, look-a-like, something which ended up either as an expression combining the words or should be tagged together to differentiate them from a normal way to use the same words separately (ice-cream and an ice cream is not the same thing...). So depends on context: DNA sequences, maybe yes (the building-blocks of life); construction, no (these are the building blocks that just arrived).

  • In what context is ice cream hyphenated? How does it differ from ice cream, the dessert food?
    – Barmar
    Sep 19 '14 at 20:09
  • ok bad example :) but someone might have used ice-cream for some strange chemical reference somewhere... Sep 19 '14 at 20:38