Here are some examples where I'll put on the left (in quotation marks) a potential hyphenation and then I'll put on the right (also in quotation marks) the misinterpretation that the potential hyphen would serve to prevent if implemented:
(1) "JFK-assassination nonsense"..."JFK [assassination nonsense]"
(2) "hardcore conspiracy-theorists"..."[hardcore conspiracy] theorists"
(3) "Pentagon advisory-documents"..."[Pentagon advisory] documents"
(4) "crazy conspiracy-theorist"..."[crazy conspiracy] theorist"
(5) "mildly insane conspiracy-theorist"..."[mildly insane conspiracy] theorist"
(6) "JFK [conspiracy industry]"..."JFK-conspiracy industry"
(7) "big conspiracy-book"..."[big conspiracy] books"
(8) "classical-liberal approach"..."classical [liberal approach]"
1: Usually my policy is just to consult the NYT archive from the past year and see what they do; sometimes it's a coin flip because they go back and forth in equal proportion when it comes to a particular instance of hyphenation.
2: David (the moderator) suggested that (1) has no danger of being ambiguous because we can't speak of "assassination nonsense that is JFK", but I still worry that we can indeed use "JFK" to modify "assassination nonsense"; JFK is a noun but nouns can be used to modify things in the way that adjectives can be used to modify things.
3: On (3), I assume that I want "[Pentagon advisory] documents" to be the interpretation and not "Pentagon [advisory documents]", but I'm not 100% sure what the ideal interpretation actually is on this front! Are they "advisory documents" associated with the Pentagon or are they documents that are associated with "Pentagon advisory"?
4: David correctly points out that I need to find a general principle regarding hyphenation so that I don't have to continuously either consult the NYT or bug this forum; that's a great point, but I just struggle to find that general principle.
5: As for what to do about the 8 examples, this is my thinking having looked at David's advice:
- common sense protects against misinterpretation regarding (2) and (4) and (5); people will use their common sense to form "conspiracy-theorist" or "conspiracy-theorists" no matter whether you hyphenate or not
- not sure about (1), (3), (6), (7), and (8)
- David refers to "how the syntax of cumulative adjectives works"; he says that "each additional one modifies the aggregate of those to the right (unless there is a hyphen to tell us otherwise)"...if this is true then it seems to provide a principle to work with...the challenge is that I'm not sure whether the public knows about and accepts this rule...this rule cannot guard against misinterpretation if the public doesn't know about and accept the rule
- I definitely agree with David's wise advice that hyphens should be used only when necessary; that's a great point and when it's a coin flip then I think that my policy is to err on the side of not hyphenating and to only hyphenate when it's really clear that it's required
- it's obvious from the NYT archive that they are aggressively anti-hyphen and you can see many instances in their archive where X was hyphenated in the past and no longer is; that's a good policy from the NYT because hyphens are best to avoid unless you really and genuinely need them.