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Is it allowed to have multiple hyphens in one word? I want to use the word semi-self-sustaining in the sentence

However, the ability to produce semi-self-sustaining stations is possessed by up to a quarter of all nations.

Should we use semi-selfsustaining or avoid it by using partially self-sustaining?

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In ‘The Penguin Guide to Punctuation’, R L Trask identifies three cases in which a hyphen is required after a prefix. One of them is where a prefix is added to a word which already contains a hyphen. His examples are non-bribe-taking politicians, his pre-globe-trotting days, non-stress-timed languages and an un-re-elected politician.

In your example, self-sustaining is a word which already contains a hyphen and to which you wish to add the prefix semi-. The resulting semi-self-sustaining is consistent with Trask’s advice.

  • Do note that these forms are hard to parse and that people tend to avoid them. The google books search for Trask's examples give 5, 1, 8 and 0 results respectively, from the whole corpus. – Unreason Oct 26 '11 at 12:26
  • @ Jasper: It's the only one most people need. I always try to recommend it whenever anyone mentions Lynne Truss. – Barrie England Oct 26 '11 at 12:32
  • @BarrieEngland, The dash mark should be longer: "non–bribe-taking", "pre–globe-trotting", "un–re-elected". See english.stackexchange.com/a/380203/8278 – Pacerier Mar 26 '17 at 3:16
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I don't personally think that using multiple hyphens is a general problem. I have often seen words like "four-year-old" and the like to make an example.

Since self-sustaining is written with a hyphen, I would go for semi-self-sustaining.

  • isn't "four-year-old" an example where no hyphens at all were needed? eg "four year old" has the same (or clearer) meaning? – Lyndon White Oct 26 '11 at 12:22
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    @oxinabox I usually see the hyphens when it's being used to modify a noun, like a four-year-old red wine. – Yamikuronue Oct 26 '11 at 13:12
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    I fail to see, how that is better than "four year old red wine" Perhaps this merits a question in it's own right. – Lyndon White Oct 26 '11 at 13:37
  • @LyndonWhite, The reader might need a double-take. Consider ""I purchased four year old red wine bottles."", vs ""I purchased four year-old red-wine bottles."". – Pacerier Mar 26 '17 at 3:39
  • Also ""I purchased sixty four year old red wine bottles."", vs ""I purchased sixty four-year-old red-wine bottles."". – Pacerier Mar 26 '17 at 3:45
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The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010) glancingly affirms the advice that Barrie England cites from The Penguin Guide to Punctuation in his answer:

6.80 En dashes with compound adjectives. ...

A single word or prefix should be joined to a hyphenated compound by another hyphen rather than an en dash; if the result is awkward, reword.

non-English-speaking peoples

a two-thirds-full cup (or, better, a cup that is to-thirds full)

As Chicago very wisely observes, the critical question to ask in deciding whether to use multiple hyphens in a compound word is a highly subjective one: Does the result seem awkward? If it does, your best bet is to reword to avoid the awkwardness—not to press on in unthinking obedience to some set-in-stone rule about proper punctuation, regardless of the effect it has on the sentence you're trying to construct.

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