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Val Ross writes:

I am less scandalized by the fact Obama and Trump tied than I am by the hyphenation of most-admired. Have you ever written on this vexed issue of hyphens?

Reprinting "Prescriptivism and national security", 10/4/2005:

I once had a good friend who waged a long, tireless but lonely and fruitless campaign to persuade a major American corporation to enforce certain rules of hyphenation in all of its documents. His idea was that any left branching in complex nominals must be signaled by a hyphen within the constituent. Taking a few examples from this morning's papers, this would mandate not just two-bedroom house and hurricane-related damage, but also Supreme-Court choice, real-estate firm, Open-Content Alliance and so on. He was passionately convinced that his proposal was much more logical than any of the standard stylistic rules on the subject, which he argued were so complex and exception-ridden that no one could follow them in practice.

I gather that my friend formed his general rule as a misunderstanding of what he was taught in school. He was indignant to find that allegedly well-edited sources got this wrong all the time, and then felt betrayed and outraged when he discovered that they felt no remorse at this systematic violation of elementary rationality. After all, without some orthographic code for signaling the structure of these complex nominals, what else could a reader rely on?

Someday, someone will explain to me why private theories about the logic of language so often turn into public crusades of moral awakening. Perhaps it reduces to the previously-unsolved problem of why some people commit themselves so emotionally to other projects of rationalizing ethical norms with respect to a revealed system.

Meanwhile total-space-nut-hyphen-basket might be a useful term of art, despite being a little long. I'll try it in a couple of other posts, and see how it works.

I never did try that epithet again, for good or ill.



  1. Crazy Jack said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 1:00 pm

    This is all about balance. We know that some compound adjectives require hyphenation for sense (eg the classic 'I saw a man eating octopus'). Some are probably neater and clearer with the hyphen. And then others look ridiculous. If you take any rule to extreme, it will break.

  2. Amy W said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 1:43 pm

    Although this one is clear from context, the hyphen does prevent a misreading of something like "Most (of the) admired men." I wouldn't really call this an overuse.

    [(myl) "Most-admired men" seems fine to me as well. But this seems to be an area where there's a lot of variation in the practice of competent writers.]

  3. Mark Meckes said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 2:44 pm

    Personally I'd only use the hyphen in "most-admired men" if the context made the phrase genuinely ambiguous. The insistence on using hyphens in situations like this, when they aren't necessary for disambiguation, can get one into trouble when writing about something like a contest at which hot dogs are eaten.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 4:45 pm

    To me, there is a very subtle difference in meaning between "one of the most admired men" and "one of the most-admired men", which I would endeavour to indicate when spoken by means of stress. With "one of the most admired men", my stress would go on "admired", whilst with "one of the most-admired men", my stress would go on "most".

  5. Joe Fineman said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 6:37 pm

    I'm afraid I don't follow Mr Taylor's fine distinction.

    "Most" belongs to a class of words that can be either adverbs or adjectives. If I were dictator, I would decree that such words should be hyphenated when they are adverbs modifying a following adjective when the resulting phrase itself modifies a following substantive. Thus, I would write "one of the most-admired men" but "one of the men who are most admired". It is true that in the first case, in this particular example, it is easy to see what "most" modifies, but I think the syntactical different between that and "most admired men" = "most men who are admired" deserves routine recognition, so that the absence as well as the presence of the hyphen is significant. One ought to be able to tell at a glance that "more intelligent people" does not mean "more-intelligent people".

  6. Gali said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

    Most-Admired rendered in that fashion rather strikes me as a monarchic epithet (Barack/Donald the Most-Admired, presumably). I confess to being a serial hyphen disregarder, and find that those who have never had the misfortune of having this particular flavor of pedantry drilled into their brains almost never want for a hyphen outside of set phrases (e.g. African-American).

  7. Crawdad Tom said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 8:36 pm

    Speaking of hyphens, why the hyphen in "previously-unsolved problem," when the -ly gives the information you need? I've noticed hyphens with adverbs ending in -ly rather frequently here.

  8. Joe Fineman said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 8:55 pm

    I have noticed that a lot, too, and think it results from overgeneralizing the common legitimate cases, such as "well-known".
    It seems to me from casual observation in respectable periodicals that many copyeditors follow a rule like the one I proposed, but drawing the line between adverbs that do & do not end in "-ly" instead of between those that cannot & can also be adjectives. Thus, they make it "a kindly meant remark" but "an often-heard remark", whereas for me it is the other way around. That is an easier rule for copyeditors to follow, but IMO it misses the point.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    January 2, 2020 @ 10:16 pm

    But 'one of the most admired men' really doesn't make sense with the other meaning, so that doesn't really make the case. I agree, though, that 'most-admired' is standard here and probably what I would use. And I could certainly understand why someone would want to mandate the hyphen in this type of construction because standard usage doesn't seem to be reducible to simple rules.

    The fact that Obama and Trump could top such a list today is troubling – it shows that the respondents seriously lack imagination and/or that there is a serious shortage of people to admire (= respect, presumably) in America.

    k_over_hbarc at

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    January 3, 2020 @ 10:43 am

    I realise that my "nice distinction" is extraordinarily nebulous, but perhaps the following may help to clarify the distinction that I seek to draw. For me, "one of the most-admired men" places emphasis on the "most" element, whilst "one of the most admired men" places emphasis on "admired".

  11. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 3, 2020 @ 12:08 pm

    Speaking of hyphens, why the hyphen in "previously-unsolved problem," when the -ly gives the information you need? I've noticed hyphens with adverbs ending in -ly rather frequently here.

    Indeed. Since the adverb can modify only* the adjective, the hyphen isn't needed. This is probably a type of hypercorrection, and more difficult to weed out. Most people get it when I say "ask a high energy physicist what he has been smoking", but still can't explain why they write "well-known book" but not "very-good novel".

    * Another pet peeve: misplaced "only".

  12. Karen said,

    January 3, 2020 @ 1:49 pm

    "Someday, someone will explain to me why private theories about the logic of language so often turn into public crusades of moral awakening."

    A number of things seem to motivate this behavior:

    (a) A Sapir-Whorf-like notion that the more disciplined the language (and its written representation), the more disciplined the mind/soul. "Lazy" or "illogical" language leads to "lazy" or "illogical" thoughts, which will ruin society.

    (b) Language is treated like traffic rules – a protocol that must be unambiguous for the safety of all parties. Miscommunication is treated as a very serious issue, regardless of situation (if you're unclear in your language when speaking casually with friends, how will you ever be clear when the stakes are higher?!).

    (c) Language is malleable in a way that many things are not. It is relatively easy to change one's own use of language to follow one's own ideas of what a 'logically consistent' language should be like. One may have ideas of what societal rules of politeness should be like to be "logical" but these are much harder to change. One may have ideas of how to organize society, but it takes years and the work of many people to realize this.

    Meanwhile a person very concerned with private rules of logic can immediately put them into effect in their speech. They are likely to go unnoticed by other parties. And since few people ponder where rules of "correctness" come from or how they are legitimized, this makes many people susceptible to agreeing someone with Very Strong Opinions on language, especially if they can make appeals to authority.

    (d) Plus, who hasn't felt a tiny surge of superiority when telling other people how to speak? It's a dark impulse, certainly, but telling someone off for using grammar in a way you don't like feels… good. It's the petty joy of correcting someone else, often in a public way. And depending on your chosen rule, you get to experience this petty joy frequently. Since grammar is a topic most people don't feel confident talk about, you're unlikely to come up against serious resistance other than "let people speak how they want to speak" (which is valid, but usually not elaborated upon).

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 3, 2020 @ 2:37 pm

    Hyphen use in English is a challenge even for experienced writers.

    I often see unnecessary hyphenation in phrases such as "he is twenty-years-old", perhaps influenced by the attributive "twenty-year-old".

    And then there is the peculiar fact that "near-miss" and "near miss" have opposite meanings: "near-" is a prefix meaning something like "almost (but not quite)", as in "near-disaster" or "near-accident", so that a near-miss is a hit that is almost (but not quite) a miss, while "near" is an adjective meaning "close", so that a near miss is a miss that is close to being a hit, but still a miss.

  14. Ioanna said,

    January 3, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    I agree that the hyphen is correct here, especially to disambiguate for brains expecting headlinese wordsoup, but there's a subtle thing here I can't quite unwind. In reporting on a poll like this, it seems absolutely correct to call them "most-admired." But at a party, I would describe certain people as being "the most admired women in the room," no hyphen. I'm not sure why.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    January 4, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    Most people get it when I say "ask a high energy physicist what he has been smoking", but still can't explain why they write "well-known book" but not "very-good novel".

    There's a distinction between saying it, and writing it. There's an ambiguity in the written form ("high energy physicist") that is not there in speech.

    Also related to speech versus writing:
    But at a party, I would describe certain people as being "the most admired women in the room," no hyphen. I'm not sure why.

    You communicate in writing while at a party? Odd behavior. Or, if that's not what you mean, I'm not understanding what you do mean.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    January 4, 2020 @ 12:29 pm

    I guess you didn't notice, either, that 'high energy physicist' is not clarified by adding a hyphen! That's because in both 'high energy' is a single adjective phrase.

    I guess we need to acknowledge that this hyphenation in English is not entirely logical but that our preference is to over-hyphenate and not the other way around. If you always put it in when in doubt, you won't be misunderstood and will probably look wrong less often.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    January 4, 2020 @ 2:16 pm

    Andrew, you've come up with a 3rd meaning that hadn't occurred to me. I was thinking a physicist who studies high energy particles, versus an energy physicist (whatever that would be) that's high. I was going to ask what other meaning that fits with use of a hyphen you had in mind (in addition to my first meaning), but, after getting interrupted while writing a comment, it occurs to me it could mean a physicist with a lot of energy.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 10:06 am

    Yes, and that's a very common use of 'high-energy' (normally hyphenated) – whereas the 'high (energy physicist)' reading is rather a stretch, for any meaning of 'high'.

  19. Andrew Usher said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    … one reason the, I would think, the pun only works when written (or as he would prefer, works only …).

    And I also find Philip Taylor's 'nice distinction' very odd. I see what he means, though the two are semantically equivalent. I can imagine saying it either way put can't quite express what, if anything, the distinction really is.

    When you push 'submit' without having entered your information, the software says 'please FILL the required fields'. I don't know who wrote that but in my grammar it has to be 'fill in' or 'fill out', not just 'fill', when the meaning is to write something in a space.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 11:21 am

    Andrew — or "populate", or "complete", perhaps. As regards the "nice distinction", it is now a lot clearer in my mind. With "most-admired man", we are comparing and contrasting "most-admired" with "less-admired"; with "most admired man", we are contrasting "admired" with (e.g.,) "hated",

  21. Rodger C said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

    I suspect that "Please fill the required fields" is an attempt at concision dating from the days when, e.g., filenames couldn't exceed eight characters.

  22. Ioanna said,

    January 5, 2020 @ 2:23 pm

    I think "most-admired" is a category, and "most admired" is a description. The hyphen follows the quicker pronunciation of the former as well as disambiguating. It's subtle, but the hyphen makes it into more of a discrete unit.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    January 6, 2020 @ 8:39 am

    Well, now I see it, easily. The 'most-admired' man would be the most highly admired, while the 'most admired' man would be admired by the most people. Logical but I'm not sure how well it would line up with any spoken distinction.

  24. Lane said,

    January 7, 2020 @ 10:47 am

    Without trying to go full jihadi on it, I did espouse the "hyphenate compound modifiers" rule here.

    I thought that those extra hyphens help readers without calling any attention whatsoever. (We don't do them in proper names, like Supreme-Court justice, because the well known proper name does the work for you.) But just today someone wrote in to say that we use too many hyphens, and that "the result is clunky and distracting for someone who cares about good writing. A more relaxed approach would make you more readable."

    Can't please everyone.

  25. Philip Anderson said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 4:50 pm

    A headline I read today: "US-government issued phones run 'Chinese malware'"

    Three-word modifiers seem to give particular problems. Personally I would have written "US government-issued phones", so the reader doesn't start off taking "issued" as the main verb and then have to reparse.

  26. Andrew Usher said,

    January 9, 2020 @ 6:40 pm

    Your suggestion does put the normal hyphenation of both two-word phrases together. The problem is that it's clearly the first pair that are more closely tied, and therefore seem to be split up.

    Possible improvements:
    'American government-issued …'
    'US-government-issued …'
    'Government-issued phones in the US …'

    But, another problem is that 'government-issued', by default, means issued for government purposes, apparently not the case here. So more natural would be:

    'Phones from US government …'

    and that, at least, needs no hyphen.

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