During an episode of Archer, he criticized a journalist's grammar for her misuse of the word 'child-murderer'. She meant one who murders children, and Archer argued in using the hyphenated form, she implied the accused man is a child who murders. Is this correct?

I searched "child-murder" and "child-murderer", only to find columns eschewing the hyphen in nearly all cases. Instead, the columnists, relied on context as to whether they are referring to a child who murders or one who murders children. I, however, am purely interested in the proper use of the hyphen in this situation, as it could possibly extend to other situations as well. The trouble seems to arise from child not having an adjective or descriptive form. With 'teen', one does not run into this problem:

  • Teenage murderer vs teen murderer

However, if one uses 'adolescent murderer', it becomes unclear as to whether one means an adolescent who murders or... you get the picture. This problem arises from adolescent being both an adjective and noun; a hyphen can resolve the ambiguity. But once again, how should the hyphen be used?

I found a similar question: What is the plural of 'only child'?

I err on the side of only-children, in the event that 'only children' reads as 'just/simply/merely children'. Some suggested entirely new phrasing, while others say that the context is sufficient. I don't believe one should change his entire sentence when proper use of the hyphen can get his meaning across just fine, and even when context is suitable, proper grammar is still rule of law.

  • I'd intuitively agree with @Brian Hitchcock here up to a point. I'd certainly disagree with 'Archer'. The hyphen almost forces the 'one who has killed a child / children' sense, while the open form is quite ambiguous. Mar 13, 2021 at 13:51

1 Answer 1


Well, first of all, Archer got it backwards. To call someone a Child-murderer makes it clear that the victim was a child (though not necessarily certain that the perpetrator was an adult). To call someone a Child murderer leaves the age of both the perpetrator and victim open to interpretation (although at least one of them must have been a child.)

Compare Cop-killer , or, for that matter, baby-sitter, wife-beater or mother-f%#er

  • 3
    Does it make it totally clear? There are appositive noun-noun phrases that are sometimes found hyphenated, like man-child or wolf-man (although both of these could also be written withe a space or run together). What principle determines if we can hyphenate or not in these cases?
    – herisson
    Jun 20, 2015 at 9:17
  • Well, let's just say that your examples are not like mine, in that all of mine are of the form:+ verb + "er Jun 20, 2015 at 9:30
  • Would you mind explaining why 'child-murderer' makes it clear the victim was a child? And is there no way to denote a child who murders without leaving to interpretation?
    – Boss
    Jun 20, 2015 at 9:49
  • One thing to remember is that (in America), children are not prosecuted for murder. Children who kill are likely to be charged with manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary. So you could say a child who kills. The line gets hazy around 16 or 17, when a youth is not considered an adult, but may be considered capable of intentionally, willingly killing. In some such cases the accused is tried as an adult, so that he can be charged with murder. But then we aren't deeming him a child,are we? Jun 22, 2015 at 9:09
  • 1
    Apart from a US-specific legal situation, child(-)murderers could pop up in a context of child(-?)soldiers. As for the noun-noun examples being different, was Tom Clancy a spy-writer or a spy writer? When the verb in the second part is transitive, it seems we assume that the first part of the hyphenated compound is the object, but I would not dare to bet there are no counter examples.
    – oerkelens
    Jul 20, 2015 at 12:47

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