When not to hyphenate

rogersgeorge on October 25th, 2011

One of my favorite errors to point out is an unhyphenated compound adjective. A compound adjective is when two words work together to modify a noun, and you need to connect those two words with a hyphen. If you leave out the hyphen, you get the first word modifying the second word, and this can lead to serious ambiguity. I wrote about missing hyphens recently here. Go look at the article—it contains examples. People don’t usually put in the hyphen if they don’t need it, but I found an unnecessary hyphen today. The article is interesting, too, if you like astronomy.

 By blowing a wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge “cavity,” a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have.

You’re reading along, and suddenly you wonder, “a region of low-density what?” That hyphen told you “compound adjective here” so you expected a noun. Maybe you filled in the noun yourself—low-density vacuum. Or perhaps you re-arranged the whole sentence, “…a very low-density region surrounding…” Or maybe you picked the simplest  solution and removed the hyphen—a region of low density.

Perhaps some science writer has been reading this blog and got over-enthusiastic about hyphens. (I flatter myself. I’ve never gotten a comment from a science writer about anything.) Here’s the picture that goes with the article.

Four telescopes teamed up on this one

Oh—one other thing I need to be curmudgeonly about: Don’t write “prior to” when you mean “before.”

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

In which I rant on about hyphens

rogersgeorge on November 10th, 2009

Harrumpf! I’d expect a notable scientific  journal like the Daily Galaxy to get these things right. Especially after I so recently described how to do it. (I’m sure they read my missives regularly…)

When you have a phrase that’s used as an adjective, you hyphenate it. That way you know the first word in the phrase isn’t modifying the second word, but the words together are modifying the noun.

Here’s the example. They get it right the second time, one paragraph later, so I suspect careless proofreading.

“…we have a much better idea of how to find and recognize Earth like planets (Emphasis mine. This should be hyphenated.) outside our solar system…” said Enric Palle, of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias.

“Many discoveries of Earth-size planets (correct!) are expected in the next decades and some will orbit in the habitable zone of their parent stars.”

Side note: I see they capitalize “Earth.” A century back, when I was in sixth grade, Mrs. Clemens taught us to capitalize all the planet names except earth.

Don’t get me wrong—I read their articles regularly and find them interesting and informative. But carelessness like this frosts me. If they had read and followed the little freebie I offer (see the form on the right) perhaps they would have been more careful. I recommend you take a look at it.