I'm a bit confused about when to hyphenate in certain circumstances. Specifically, which of the following would I hyphenate?

Launch a first strike

Launch a second strike

Damage first strike capabilities

Damage second strike capabilities

I know that compound adjectives are hyphenated, but is a "first strike" a compound adjective, since it's really one concept?

  • How is it only a single concept? There can be many strikes only one of which can be a first strike.
    – Jim
    Apr 5 '15 at 18:15
  • Two reasons I thought it might not be hyphenated: 1) "first strikes" are (I think) a technical term for a concept in international relations literature, 2) "first strikes" are used in international relations literature (scholar.google.com/…)
    – Andrew Min
    Apr 5 '15 at 18:17
  • 1
    – Jim
    Apr 5 '15 at 18:21

Launch a first strike

"first strike" here is a noun phrase --> no hyphen

Damage first-strike capabilities

Here, "first strike" is a compound adjective, used attributively --> hyphen

  • Question regarding your answer: "The capabilities damaged were first strike." Okay, that is an odd sentence, I admit, but since a verb of being separates the compound adjective from the noun it modifies, would the hyphen then disappear? Or would you have to say that the sentence is really, "The capabilities damaged were first-strike [ones]," with the pronoun ones omitted and implied?
    – thb
    Apr 5 '15 at 19:34
  • Marius, it would seem wise to use full sentences as examples to make the function of the words perfectly clear.
    – ScotM
    Apr 5 '15 at 19:38
  • 1
    @thb "The capabilities damaged were first strike." Chicago is pretty clear about this one and the reason is hyphens should be used only when one's risking ambiguity, and there's none to talk about here. Apr 5 '15 at 20:06

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