The term "the 100 most-cited statistical papers" is used to define "citation classics." I thought my foreign-speaking client was using the hyphen incorrectly, but this is how it is termed by the native English scholars of the field. What is the justification for using this hyphen with the superlative?

  • Related: Hyphenation of "second most northerly"
    – herisson
    Mar 13, 2022 at 6:53
  • The justification is probably that they've already read multiple people using "most-cited".
    – Stuart F
    Mar 13, 2022 at 13:15
  • Hyphenation, like all English punctuation, is not governed by rule, but by individual and corporate habits and fads. Consequently there can be no "justification". Mar 13, 2022 at 16:28
  • 1
    Like driving on the right side (or the left side) of the road, punctuation is purely a matter of convention. It stands to reason, then, that as fewer and fewer people who write books or other published materials abide by any particular convention, it becomes less and less useful as a way to avoid accidents. In the case of "the 100 most cited statistical papers," I don't see how hyphenating "most cited" clarifies anything, but I have encountered many phrases of a similar kind in which omitting a hyphen has invited misreading. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 15, 2022 at 7:01
  • 1
    ... For example, suppose that you want to convey the idea that your group needs to increase the rigorousness of its work, not to increase the amount of work it does at its current level of rigor. If you express the objective as being "to do more rigorous work," you invite your readers to understand "more rigorous" in a purely quantitative sense; but if you express the goal as being "to do more-rigorous work," you indicate that your concern is qualitative.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 15, 2022 at 7:07

2 Answers 2


Foreword: Methodology

The assertions about usage made in this answer are made from comparisons using Google Books Ngram Viewer. Simple Google searches were made to get a subjective feel of whether Ngram results were typical of general contemporary usage.

Both are used in general

The assertion in the question that “most-cited… is how it is termed by the native English scholars of the field” is a little misleading in a general linguistic sense. The term “Citation Classic” was introduced by Eugene Garfield in his publication “Current Contents”, and in relation to this he used the adjectival phrase “most-cited” in a hyphenated form. However in the same general context the unhyphenated form is also found, e.g. Journals of the Century, Cole and Stankus, 2014 has:

By 1995 the Harvard Law Review had published 42 of the 102 most cited law review articles of all-time

So one might ascribe the justification as:

The whim of Eugene Garfield.

Readability and removal of ambiguity

My initial response was that the justification was:

For readability and to avoid “false scent”

You have a noun, papers, with four preceding words qualifying it. As most and cited form a pair (you could formerly replace them with a single superlative like “greatest”) then hyphenating them makes it clear they go together and reduces the number of qualifiers to three.

However, on reflection I do not think this stands up very well. You could argue that “most” can only qualify the single word “cited” as it would make no sense qualifying “cited statistical”, and that “100” cannot qualify “most” alone, so that in reality there is no “false scent”. That leaves readability, but ‘most-cited’ is also used when there is no preceding qualifying number i.e. less possibility for ambiguity. Anyway, we punctuate, but don’t generally hyphenate, for readability.

Furthermore, other adjectival phrases with most are not hyphenated. I could find no examples of “most-beautiful women” or even “most-beautiful”. Using an adjectival participle of the same type and number of syllables, “hated”, one can find a few examples of “most-hated men”, but these are vastly outnumbered by “most hated men”.

So I conclude that there is no general grammatical justification, but that there is something special about ‘most-cited’

Transition to a concept in its own right

There is a well-known linguistic change from “Adjective Noun” to “Adjective-Noun” to “AdjectiveNoun”, as the adjective and noun become more closely associated with one another in the minds of users. Perhaps that is what has happened in this case, and

‘Most-cited’ has developed into an adjective in its own right rather than being an example of the use of a general superlative

(However, I don’t anticipate a further transition to “mostcited”. But who knows…)

  • Thank you for the scrutiny of your answer. The answers that I related to the most were: (1) "The whim of Eugene Garfield." (2) "'Most-cited’ has developed into an adjective in its own right rather than being an example of the use of a general superlative. My conclusion reiterates that which I gave your colleague: Unfortunately, technologically idiomatic terminology is becoming more independent from grammatical correctness. Mar 14, 2022 at 19:50

I'd put those hyphens down to ignorance. A small minority of writers hyphenate most + [past participle used adjectivally], but the vast majority don't (and never did)...

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...and nobody hyphenates most + [standard adjective]...

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By way of further illustrating how "nonsensical" the cited hyphen usage is, it's worth noting that nobody includes it unless the actual number of "most-verbed" entities is explicitly specified ...

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I defy anyone to come up with a convincing rationale as to why the presence or absence of a specific number (one of the N most wanted criminals) should make any difference to the orthography.

  • Google Ngrams don't treat hyphens in hyphenated terms as simple characters. That's why Ngram searches for hyphenated terms generate canned responses from the Ngram software such as "Replaced ten most-cited with [ten most - cited] to match how we processed the books." I don't know what that note means, but I do know that Ngram will not deliver a straight answer about how many times "ten most-cited" appears in the Google Books database of publications. In contrast, because Elephind treats hyphens as simple characters, it lists instances of hyphenated terms with few false positives. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 15, 2022 at 19:54
  • ...For example, an Elephind search for "most-famous" yields 254 matches from 1856 through 2012—131 from U.S. newspapers and 123 from Australian newspapers. Some are undoubtedly false positives caused by OCR errors but most are valid. I strongly recommend checking search results for hyphenated terms in Elephind before drawing conclusions about use of them.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 15, 2022 at 19:54
  • An Elephind search for "most-cited" finds 18 unique matches for the hyphenated form, in publications from 1966 through 2016. Of these, four include a number prior to "most-cited" ("the three most-cited examples"; "one of Shakespeare's most-cited but little-used plays"; " the 56 most-cited black scholars"; "One of the most-cited reasons") and fourteen do not.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 15, 2022 at 20:10
  • But apparently Elephind only indexes magazines / newspapers. Such publications often feature relatively narrow text columns, which means they probably include significantly more "soft hyphens". That might be a factor, I dunno. But regardless of how many "confounding factors" might affect either your or my supporting data here, I think there's no doubt the presence or absence of any specific number in the context does affect the likelihood of the "most[-]verbed" construction being hyphenated. Mar 16, 2022 at 12:11
  • Yes, it all boils down to scientific language versus grammatical language - a timeless issue no doubt. Scientists and technologists aren't the best writers, but they are constantly introducing new terminology. Therefore, if the author of the method has chosen to term the subject "ten most-cited papers," I must dutifully accept, at least when I am quoting the work. As for the scientific peer reviewers who may criticize my grammatical correct edited copy, I must remember that they are science people too, and tell myself 'wasn't this to be expected?' ...and not feel so bad! Mar 16, 2022 at 17:53

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