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In order to combine "nationally" and "top-ranked" would the resulting qualifier be written as "nationally-top-ranked" or "nationally top-ranked"?

Edit: I do not immediately see the applicability of this question, because that particular question does not address the case of having more than three adjectives that, when written two at a time (two at-a-time?) would be hyphenated (e.g., nationally-ranked, top-ranked).

  • My personal preference would be not to have any hyphen at all. But this NGram suggests I'm in the minority with top-ranked. Looking at Google Books though, I don't see anyone trying to use two hyphens. – FumbleFingers Feb 21 '16 at 19:18
  • @Rathony I addressed in my opinion why I didn't see your suggested duplicate as a duplicate. – user5283407 Feb 22 '16 at 22:47
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Hyphen usage is much less uniform than many other aspects of English punctuation, and what's more, it can be very sensitive to context; so it's hard to suggest hard-and-fast rules. But in general, long adverbs like nationally are not usually joined to the adjectives they modify, even in attributive position: so, I'd recommend "nationally top-ranked".

One thing to note is that the adjective ranked requires a modifier (a "complement"), and that required modifier frequently is joined to it with a hyphen (especially in attributive position), even when it's a long adverb like nationally. This is why we frequently write "top-ranked", and it also means that we frequently write "nationally-ranked". But in your case, top is already filling that role, so nationally is just being a normal adverb (an "adjunct").

So, in short:

  • a top-ranked team
  • a nationally-ranked team
  • a nationally top-ranked team
  • Good examples. I made use of these in the edited question. – user5283407 Feb 22 '16 at 22:46
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This is a punctuation style question, and U.S. publishers are heavily influenced on matters of this sort by The Chicago Manual of Style and The Asociated Press Stylebook, neither of which supports hyphenating "nationally-ranked team." From the fifteenth edition of Chicago (2003):

7.87 Adverbs ending in "ly." Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after the noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible.

From the 2002 edition of AP:

When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly: [exmples omitted].

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The principle of using a hyphen to avoid confusion explains why no hyphen is required with very and -ly words. Readers can expect them to modify the word that follows.

Style guides present advice and institutional style preferences, not truths about grammar or syntax. But the preference in U.S. publishing for not including a hyphen after nationally in a compound modifier is strong; and that fact may be of interest to you if you are writing for U.S. publication.

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English, like other languages, has a morphological system of word formation that works separately from its syntactic system of phrase formation. In "nationally top-ranked", "top" and "ranked" are combined by a morphological process (compounding), while "nationally" and "top-ranked" are combined by a syntactic process (modification). By convention, we no not use hyphens between the parts of a phrase, but in compounds, which are made up of words, we sometimes do. For instance, you don't expect to see a hyphen added between a subject and its predicate, because that is a syntactic formation.

Inflectional endings are added to words by syntactic processes, not morphological ones, so they can usually not appear in compounds. The "-ly" ending of "nationally" is an inflectional ending, which we can tell from the fact that "-ly" never affects the stress or the internal phonology of a word that it is added to, and so that is a clue that the combination of "nationally" and "top-ranked" must be a syntactic formation, not a morphological one -- it contains an inflection.

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It is top-ranked in the nation, therefore it is nationally top-ranked.

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