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How do I hyphenate an open-form compound word with another that should be hyphenated?

I am taking an editing course, and the instructor said that the following phrase must be hyphenated and that I was wrong in not hyphenating it:

row-house kitchen

I did not hyphenate row house in this phrase, since I thought that it was clear that the kitchen belonged to the row house. To me, it seems a bit silly to presume that the reader would be confused here. (However, I have lived in a row house in D.C., so perhaps I am biased.)

Must row house be hyphenated in this instance? If so, then must, for example, free[-]trade agreement or post[-]office box be hyphenated? This seems excessive. I searched several periodicals, and these phrases appear without hyphens more often than with hyphens.

I see that there is guidance here and here, and I understand that one should employ a hyphen to improve readability where necessary, but I am having trouble understanding when and when not to hyphenate an open-form compound noun. Is this more of a style preference? Thank you very much for your help.

  • 2
    You did OK with "open-form compound noun" ...
    – Robusto
    Nov 14 '12 at 19:06
  • 1
    Don't think of it as a rule - think of it as a courtesy and a precaution. Anything which can be misunderstood will be. Nov 14 '12 at 19:31
  • If your instructor actually said that you were wrong in not hyphenating row house kitchen, he was wrong. He could legitimately have said, "That's not our preferred way here," but has no right to enforce debated rules arbitrarily. Mind you, if I were under his authority, I'd do it his / her way until it was safe to choose another style guide. Balanced articles appear at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_modifier . Nov 14 '12 at 21:27

I presume your instructor is using the rule: "hyphenate an open-form compound noun when it is used as an adjective preceding the noun it modifies." Not everybody agrees with this rule, but you can find it online.

From the above link:

Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:
- a one-way street
- chocolate-covered peanuts
- well-known author
However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:
- The peanuts were chocolate covered.
- The author was well known.

If you are writing for a publication where this is in the style guide, or taking a course where the instructor believes in this rule, you should probably follow it.

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