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In an earlier post - Phonetic understanding of tongue twisters - a comment was made that "hyphens ...(are) ...not needed in speech, so they must be extraneous". The phrase prompting this assertion was 'state of the art'.

What does it mean to say that hyphens are not needed in speech? No one would say state hyphen of hyphen the hyphen art, of course. But when I say "This is a state of the art paper on tongue twisters" I make a point of saying the words 'state of the art' as a group and slightly apart from the run of the words on either side. If I didn't, and spoke the words in the same rhythm as the rest of the phrase, the meaning can easily be lost (and the sentence is certainly harder to read meaningfully at first sight).

There is good reason to use hyphens, or some other notational device, in such cases, isn't there ?

  • This is a state-of-the-art paper on tongue twisters

  • This is a 'state of the art' paper on tongue twisters

  • This is a state of the art paper on tongue twisters

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  • John Lawler may address this later, but surely he was being somewhat tongue in cheek when he said "just more unneeded squiggles like Hebrew vowels." Jul 28, 2015 at 10:15
  • Let's see! I am more interested in the relation between written and spoken words, and the extent to which this may be like music. Music notation, though pleasing and absorbing in itself, is primarily a best effort to represent musical sounds. Music itself, the sound of it, is the 'source'. Music notation theory can never dictate what music may be. Of course, words are used for a far wider variety of purposes than is music...
    – Dan
    Jul 28, 2015 at 10:33

4 Answers 4

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Text is a presentation of language, with some advantages that speech lacks, the main one being portability across space and time, but also with some disadvantages, for example:

--fluency alone is not enough--you have to learn to read;
--until the advent of text-to-speech you couldn't really chop onions while engaging with the language;
--the structure of phrases, clauses, and sentences, demarcated in natural speech by syntactic pauses, parsing rhythms, and intonation patterns, must be simulated or approximated with punctuation marks

and so on.

Punctuation (like the hyphens in this question) can clarify meaning by signaling the rhythms, pauses, and intonations that fluent speakers understand at a deep level even if they don't consciously think about them when processing speech. One aspect of literacy is understanding the correspondence of these marks on the page with their counterparts in natural language.

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The answer is certainly yes, such cases do exist.

But before I show you a few, please try to keep in mind the advice from Oxford University Press cited at the end of The Economist’s Style Guide’s section on hyphens:

If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.

Yes, they buried their own lede. I didn’t.

So now let’s look at some places where it’s useful. Just don’t forget not to go mad.


One place hyphens come in handy is for three-word sequences where it isn’t clear just which of the second words the first one is supposed to apply to — so unlike for three word-sequences.

In writing you use a hyphen to clarify the intonation pattern that you cannot hear spoken intonation in the written word, which would otherwise give it away.

Compare:

  • “I’d like a rotten-cheese sandwich” means one made of cheese that’s gone off.
  • “I’d like a rotten cheese-sandwich” means just a lousy sandwich overall.

Or suppose you have different sorts of targets, some for individual seasons or quarters, others that are annual, and some that span multiple years:

  • “Completing multiple year targets” means meeting several annual targets.
  • “Completing multiple-year targets” means meeting targets that each span several years.

Or consider if you are choosing between several alternatives, where some of those alternatives are researched and some are not. Then you get this difference:

  • Choosing several of the best-researched alternatives.
  • Choosing several of the best researched alternatives.

Or suppose you want to distinguish between heavy- and light-weight metal detectors and detectors of heavy metals:

  • Some heavy-metal detectors are detectors of heavy metals.
  • Some heavy metal detectors are detectors that weigh a lot.

In speech, you naturally stress those two possibilities differently.

It’s difficult to demonstrate prosody patterns here, but you should get the idea. Sometimes intonation is obvious simply from the writing, as in the difference between:

  • running shoes
  • running scared

There I’ve set the stressed word in italic, which is another way writers indicate unusual stress. A hyphen can work the same way without drawing quite so much attention to itself.


In the Johnson column from The Economist from 26 July 2010 titled “What it's really like to be copy-edited”, they note the following about compounds, with bold emphasis mine:

Many interesting things can be said about compounds. They come in noun-noun ("kitchen-table issues"), adjective-noun ("private-sector wages"), adjective-adjective ("blue-green flowers") and other varieties. In writing, they tend to enter the language as two words. If they survive and are used frequently, they often pass through a period of hyphenation before fusing. (My 1933 OED includes only "year-book", not "yearbook", the latter now nearly universal.) In (English) speech, we know that a compound has begun to be fused, with a specific meaning, when the stress moves to the first syllable. When photographers first began developing glass plates, they looked for a dark room; now, they use a specialised room, a dárkroom, which (as Steven Pinker notes) can be lit, just as a blackboard can be green.

So these things come and go, and you shouldn’t take them too seriously.

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  • The clarity provided by hyphens in all of your examples clarify otherwise-ambiguous word groups. As such they are clearly essential. How do you feel about hyphens where no potential ambiguity exists - so-and-so, state-of-the-art ... ?
    – Dan
    Jul 28, 2015 at 13:19
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    @Dan I find them useful.
    – tchrist
    Jul 28, 2015 at 15:27
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The reason to use hyphens in cases such as this is to make it clear that the hyphenated string is used as a single adjectival unit.

You pretty much have to hyphenate when you use any string of words as an adjective in the attributive position, i.e., preceding and modifying a noun. Such strings also appear hyphenated in the dictionary when they've been accepted as freely-used adjectives in the language.

Technically you could use some other stylistic device to show it, as you did with the italics. But the hyphens are an accepted symbol for this use and it's best to just think of them as obligatory in these cases.

The argument that we don't use hyphens when we speak is beside the point - we also don't "say" spaces, for example. There is no pause between words at the spaces, we just say the whole thing as a single huge word (and many if not most ancient languages indeed had no spaces in writing as well).

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    For example: "criminal-defence attorney" vs "criminal defence attorney"
    – Sawbones
    Jul 28, 2015 at 19:38
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"hyphens ...(are) ...not needed in speech, so they must be extraneous" means you don't say, for example, "two hyphen year hyphen old." You don't say the word "hyphen" out loud.

Here's an example of a word where I like to insert a hyphen for clarity: re-sent

To: school administrator (complaining about school unresponsiveness)

I am having trouble getting in touch with So-and-So. I first emailed her on May 3, and re-sent the message two weeks later.

I use the hyphen to prevent misunderstandings with resent (as in resentment).


Thanks for the comment, I think I understand better what you're looking for.

My current understanding about hyphens is that there are some words that are generally spelled with a hyphen, regardless of where you put them in a sentence, such as old-fashioned or so-and-so. There are some gray areas, and I think that's what you're interested in. For example:

  • To prevent ambiguity, e.g. re-sent vs. resent.
  • You can make creative combinations of words and just tack them together with hyphens for fun, e.g. *My sister takes the jump-up-and-down-and-scream approach to stress relief, while I take the slam-the-door-and-come-back-an-hour-later approach.
  • Your state of the art example probably started out with hyphens, but as time goes on and a phrase becomes better known and pretty standard, people tend to start leaving out hyphens more and more, in the general drive over time for modern-looking elegance. (That's just my opinion.)
  • Lightly steamed asparagus -- I think here again, the trend is to use less hyphens as time goes on (as opposed to lightly-steamed asparagus).

I think there's a fair amount of leeway with hyphen decisions, and I will give you license to err on the side of more rather than less.

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  • I like your example of re-sent/resent. But I'm more interested in your using hyphens with So-and-So. In this case the hyphens do not prevent misunderstandings. What is your reason for using them?
    – Dan
    Jul 28, 2015 at 8:00
  • @Dan, in my experience, "so-and-so" is the correct spelling. Google, Dictionary.com, thefreedictionary.com, and other back this up.
    – VampDuc
    Jul 28, 2015 at 16:52
  • @VampDuc I'm not an expert on capitalization of that word, but I like to use lower case when talking about that so-and-so, and capitals when I'm talking about a particular person -- with neutral emotion, like Mr. So-and-So. It might be wrong, but it works well for me. Jul 28, 2015 at 19:06
  • David Marsh describes it well in his latest book for who the bell tolls - the hyphen can mean the difference between a man eating octopus or a man-eating octopus. The man eating octopus is obviously hungry and therefore, eating octopus. However, one small hyphen and the meaning is changed entirely so now the octopus is hungry, and eats man. It is amazing the clarity that a hyphen gives.
    – Treasa
    Jul 28, 2015 at 20:00
  • @aparente001 I was referring to the use of hyphens, not capitalization.
    – VampDuc
    Jul 28, 2015 at 20:15

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