Compound adjectives are hyphenated, e.g. "data-to-field binding". But how is the hyphen used when one of the words in the compound adjective is an expression? For example, how would you hyphenate the following:

(Data) (to) (service environment) binding?

Data-to-service-environment binding?

Data-to-service environment binding?

  • I agree with Gulliver's answer. Just one small point - not all compound adjectives are hyphenated, for example "headstrong", "threadbare", watertight" and quiet a few others.
    – BillJ
    Aug 21 '18 at 11:55
  • En dashes to the rescue. We've had this question in the past. Several times, in fact. En dashes to the rescue.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 21 '18 at 18:50

English does not really have an elegant solution to this.

I think data-to-service-environment binding is technically correct, even if it in unwieldy. Data-to-SE binding might be better.

Macmillan suggests an "all-or-nothing" approach as there are cases where ambiguity could impact meaning.


Hyphenation is complex and often subjective. The Macmillan article mentioned in another answer is only a general statement about hyphenation where there is a straightforward approach.

The Chicago Manual of Style has three pages of general exposition and a twelve-page chart devoted to it.

Jumping ahead to my conclusion, my most likely understanding of the meaning of the sentence results in this particular example being hyphenated as follows:

Data-to-service environment binding.

But that's based on my subjective interpretation of the meaning of the sentence. Without further context, it's impossible to say. The question needs to provide more context for a more definitive answer.

A detailed analysis follows.

I am eating a to-die-for ice cream sandwich.

Here, the phrase to die for is hyphenated because it's acting adjectivally to the noun ice cream sandwich.

Ice cream is an open compound word. Unlike some other words, such as online, it has remained open rather than being hyphenated or closed. Although the online version of Merriam-Webster doesn't provide an online definition of ice cream sandwich, Oxford Dictionaries does.

Neither ice-cream sandwich nor ice cream-sandwich would be appropriate for reasons of syntax and simple idiomatic usage—and its open-format appearance in some dictionaries like Oxford.

So, the phrase ice cream sandwich remains in an open form and other adjectives are applied to it.

I am eating a chocolate ice cream sandwich.

Here, there is only a single adjective and nothing is hyphenated.

I am eating a dark chocolate ice cream sandwich.

Again, hyphenation would not normally be applied.

Hyphenation is normally used when a phrase could be ambiguous without it, or when a component of the phrase has a series of words that are closely related to each other.

But like ice cream or ice cream sandwich, dark chocolate is also an open-form noun. (It is similarly seen in an entry at Oxford.)

While to die for does have an entry in some dictionaries (Oxford again), it is a phrase rather than an open-form noun. When used adjectivally in front of a noun, common guidelines say that it should be hyphenated:

It is a to-die-for chocolate ice cream sandwich.

Note that common guidelines also say that there should be no hyphenation if it comes after the noun:

It is a chocolate ice cream sandwich that is to die for.

When hyphenating multiple yet discrete phrases, it's common to keep the hyphenation within the context of each phrase.

Each of the following are discrete adjectival phrases:

It was a high-profile synopsis.
It was a book-length synopsis.

But what happens when those adjectives are combined?

Depending on punctuation, here are a few different options:

It was a high-profile, book-length synopsis.
It was a high-profile and book-length synopsis.
It was a high-profile book-length synopsis.

It would be very uncommon to see it expressed as a fully joined adjectival phrase:

It was a high-profile-book-length synopsis.

Most editors would remove the middle hyphen and replace it with a comma or (less frequently) and.

Returning to your actual question.

Data-to-field binding.

This is clear.

Data-to-service binding

This is also clear.

Data-to-environment binding.

This follows the same pattern as the others, so makes sense.

Data-to-service-to-environment binding.

This makes equal sense.

But data to service environment binding presents a difficulty.

In looking at the phrase, it's not clear if either environment binding or service environment is being used as an open-form noun—or if there is no open-form noun involved at all.

One of these is correct, without the addition of the data to text:

  • (service) (environment binding).
  • (service environment) (binding).
  • service-environment (binding).
  • (service) ([, | and]) (environment) (binding).

Until it's known which of these is correct, it's not possible to say how "data to" should be incorporated.

My own subjective feel for this (which could be wrong) is that environment binding is being used as an open-form noun.

This seems natural:

(Open-form noun) I applied an environment binding.

Whereas this seems less likely:

(Adjective and noun) I applied an environment[al] binding.

The first seems most likely simply because of how it's spelled. If it were meant to be used as an adjective (as opposed to part of an open-form noun) it should be spelled environmental.

Assuming this is the case, then the following also seems likely:

I applied a service-based environment binding.
I applied a data-to-service environment binding.

Otherwise, we could also have something like this in addition to the other possible hyphenations presented in the question:

I applied a service-based and environmental binding.
I applied a data-to-service and environmental binding.

But the question can't really be answered with a greater level of certainty without knowing the meaning behind the individual words in the first place.

  • I thought I formulated the question well enough by using parentheses. I was specifically looking for expertise on how to hyphenate a compound adjective when one of its components is multi-word. Delving into the meaning of the particular example is probably not as important in this case.
    – gvaley
    Aug 29 '18 at 7:20

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