A type of gel designed to emulate human skin tissue.

So, is this a "human skin tissue–emulating gel" (en dash)?

Or, is it a "human-skin-tissue-emulating gel" (all hyphens)?

Does anyone know the correct hyphenation of such a term?

  • Have you ever seen this in print? Assuming the answer is 'yes': Where? What variant was used? Why do you think there may be a better one? Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 15:44
  • 1
    That is one ugly amalgamation. I would recast the sentence.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 15:45
  • Seems like you want something more along the line of "prosthetic skin".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 18:18
  • This "ugly amalgamation", as one may wish to call it, came from a scientific paper that I was editing as part of my job as an English Editor for a journal. The author of the paper placed a hyphen between "tissue" and "emulating". However, I thought that "human skin" needed to be linked to the word "tissue" in some way; hence, I thought an en dash should be used instead. The gel is not just emulating any kind of tissue, it is specifically emulating human skin tissue. Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 3:05
  • Or, can one argue that the gel is not just emulating "skin tissue", it is emulating human "skin tissue"? Thus, should we insert a hyphen between "skin" and "tissue" to begin with? Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 3:13

2 Answers 2


You need to figure out the structure of the phrase (or word), then put a hyphen between the most closely connected elements, which will be those that make a unit with each other but with no other element. I think the structure is:

[[human [skin tissue]] emulating] gel

and if that's right, the two most closely connected elements are "skin" and "tissue", so then the hyphenation would be: "human skin-tissue emulating gel".

The reason I think that is the structure for this complicated compound is a series of paraphrases we can make. It's a gel for [human skin-tissue emulating] -- that connects the 4 elements "human", "skin", "tissue", and "emulating", and those are bracketed in the structure I gave.

And, something that is for human skin-tissue emulating is for emulating [human skin-tissue]. And human skin-tissue is the [skin-tissue] of a human.

  • You treat emulating as a noun here; I would instinctively treat is as a participle (for a noun, I'd use emulation): it is a gel which emulates human skin tissue. If we simplify the NP to just tissue, I would hyphenate it as tissue-emulating gel (in accordance with the ‘rule’ that object-participle adjectives are generally hyphenated). With the complex NP, the only thing I would change is optionally substituting an en dash for the hyphen. I would possibly (50/50) read human skin-tissue emulating gel as ‘human skin tissue that emulates gel’. Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 21:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, how do you arrive at the conclusion that I treated emulating as a noun? I appealed to a paraphrase for emulating human skin-tissue, but there, emulating is a gerund -- not a noun (because it has a direct object).
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 22:43
  • I was going by your first paraphrasing, “a gel for [human skin-tissue emulating]”, which reads like a noun to me, not a gerund, since it is modified by an attributive NP. In your last paragraph, you equate this semantically (if I'm reading you right) with a gerund phrase, but your initial analysis and hyphenation seemed to me to be based on the nominal reading, which to me is a red herring. Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 22:50
  • No, in “a gel for [human skin-tissue emulating]”, the bracketed expression is a compound. There is no modification "by an attributive NP". Compounds don't have modification, and "human skin-tissue" is a noun, not a NP (which you can't have inside a compound).
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 23:06
  • ‘Human skin-tissue’ is not a noun, it is a nested compound. Whether or not you classify a compound within a compound as a noun phrase is a matter of preference. The fact remains, however, that gerunds cannot function as the head of a compound noun. Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 23:10

You need a hyphen between the words tissue and emulating, but nowhere else.

The reason is that skin is simply an attributive noun to tissue (it functions as a adjective), and human is also an attributive noun. Thus human and skin are just cascading "adjectives" that do not combine into a single unit with tissue, and therefore do not require multiple hyphens.

So the correct way to write your phrase is

human skin tissue-emulating gel

  • 2
    Since the question explicitly mentions (albeit not in a very clear way) the distinction between hyphens and en dashes, it is worth noting that some style guides allow or require that an en dash be used here, rather than a hyphen (see Chicago Manual of Style 6.80, for an example). Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 16:26
  • Yes, I am following the Chicago Manual of Style. Thus, in "human skin tissue-(en dash)emulating gel", is the en dash helping to form a compound adjective? Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 2:59

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