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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.

Last edited by Andrew Van Wagner
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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.



Learn to think for yourself about hyphens and it won't matter to you what the NYT does. You'll be able to see when they get it right and when they get it wrong.



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.



I've already told you that a visitor from another planet would be entitled to the absurd interpretation you are proposing, so if you are really worried about it, go ahead and add that absurdly unnecessary hyphen and make your readers wince.



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"?



I understand "Pentagon advisory documents" to mean advisory documents from the Pentagon (the Pentagon is doing the advising), and "Pentagon-advisory documents" to mean documents of advice given to the Pentagon (the Pentagon is being advised). The one interpretation doesn't take a hyphen. The other does.



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.



How many times and in how many ways do I need to explain it to you? Have you thought about buying a grammar-and-punctuation book? Is your message in this thread basically, "David has told me how things are, but I don't believe him"?



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



You NEVER need a hyphen between the last adjective (or attributive noun) and the head noun of a noun phrase, no matter how many adjectives or attributive nouns come before them. It is INCORRECT to write "crazy conspiracy-theorists"; the hyphen is WRONG. That is what "crazy conspiracy theorists" MEANS. It WON'T be interpreted to mean "crazy-conspiracy theorists" by any LITERATE person.

- not sure about (1), (3), (6), (7), and (8)

I guess I've just been wasting my time. I explain things to you, and then you say that you're not sure. Why should I respond to your posts at all? I don't get paid to help you. The other day, I gave a lawyer a grammatical explanation of a sentence together with a sentence diagram. I spend just a little longer than I spend on a long-ish answer on the Grammar Exchange. He mailed me a check for $500.00.

- 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



Language has structure. Even noun phrases have structure. The structure of language is hierarchical, and the rules about hyphen usage are in large part related to the hierarchical structure of the noun phrase. As you move from the head noun of the noun phrase backwards, you are, from a structural standpoint, moving upwards, each new modifier dominating those beneath it, as a set.

Let me end on a light note. Have you ever thought about the song "Itsy bitsy teeny weenie yellow polka dot bikini"? Is it talking about a bikini of an unspecified base color with yellow polka dots? Or is it talking about a yellow bikini with polka dots of an unspecified color? It all depends on the punctuation. Here's how I see it:

yellow bikini, polka dots of an unspecified color:
itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie yellow polka-dot bikini

bikini of an unspecified color, yellow polka dots:
itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie yellow-polka-dot bikini

I just want to establish a couple important things.

First, I find this forum extremely valuable; it's a central and crucial part of my growth and success as a writer.

Second, I do like to challenge things, but why does this need to be interpreted as me not appreciating this forum or not appreciating the incredible help that you guys provide? Isn't it healthy to challenge things and critique things and think about things? And if you're correct about this then I'll eventually come around based on understanding not merely based on accepting what you said uncritically; isn't that a good thing?

Last edited by Andrew Van Wagner

One of my friends said this:

For what it’s worth, the hierarchical structure is [crazy [conspiracy theorists]].  Hence if hyphenation followed structure, it would be “conspiracy-theorists.”

Precisely because that is the unmarked, default grouping inherently provided by the hierarchical structure of the noun phrase, we do NOT need that hyphen.

It is only when we need to override the default grouping of the hierarchical structure and instruct readers to interpret one modifier as modifying another modifier, rather than the complex which includes the head noun of the noun phrase, that we need to use one or more hyphens in a noun phrase.

Last edited by David, Moderator

"If you don't unbold his remarks"

What do you mean? Is this a typo? It says "unbold"; this seems to refer to whether the remarks appear in bold text, but I'm not sure why you're asking me to change the font, so I assume that that isn't what you're actually asking.

You had quoted your friend's comments in bold, as if to exaggerate their importance. By asking you to unbold those comments, I was asking you to make them not bold, that is, to cause their lettering to appear normal, non-bold. "Bold" can be a verb. The use of "un-" is of the same type you find in "undress."

Just a thought about hyphenation!

I think that the issue of hyphenation is additionally challenging because you're not merely trying to make it possible for readers to know what you meant; you're trying to make it minimally burdensome on the reader and that means complicated judgments instead of leaving it to the reader's potential ability to figure things out.

Does this complicate matters?

Thanks, and sorry again for my faux pas of including my friend's rude comments; that was embarrassing on my part and I apologize for that.

Last edited by Andrew Van Wagner

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