The case of phrasal adjectives without a hyphen

Bryan Garner on Words

Grammar rules: The case of phrasal adjectives without a hyphen

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Before Sterling, Chief Justice; Fussbudget, J.; Anomie, J.; Martinet, J.; and Waffler, J.


Before this honorable court is the complaint of Marian Short-Dash, who accuses her local newspaper, the Clarion blunderbussto omit the “obligatory hyphens” from phrasal adjectives, thus impairing his ability to read without embarrassment.

In particular, she cites three sentences that recently appeared on a single page: (1) an editorial promoting “hateful free speech” (she wants it to be “speech without hate”); (2) another relating to “politicians tax and spend” (she wants it to be “politicians tax and spend”); and (3) a reference to “Federally Recognized Indian Tribes” (she means “Federally Recognized Tribes”).

The court of first instance upheld all three complaints. CONFIRMED as to counts 1 and 2; REVERSE on the third. Chief Justice Sterling wrote the court’s opinion, joined by Justices Fussbudget and Martinet. Judge Fussbudget filed a separate concurring opinion.

Judge Martinet filed a partly concurring and partly dissenting opinion. Judge Anomie filed a dissenting opinion. Judge Waffler filed a dissenting/concurring opinion.


We are asked to decide on the obligatory or non-obligatory status of hyphens in phrasal adjectives, also called compound modifiers. In the absence of a statutory warrant, we treat this as a common law matter. (Note that the dissenter would call this a common law question. While this is indeed common, it is not necessarily a “question of law”.)

The precedents are many and varied.

In our own opinions, we refer to bench test (it is a noun phrase) but to bench test strategies (the phrase is used as an adjective); for joint ventures but to joint venture Questions; to the law of the case but at the law of the case doctrine.

When we write about oil and gas issues (have you seen that?), we refer to production cessation clauses. And we are known, in Admiralty cases, to refer to the no-privilege-for-partial-performance-of-charter-contracts to reign. These practices were established by our splendid in-house copy editor, who continues to uphold our longstanding tradition even when lawyers and law review commentators overlook hyphens.

A usage critic long ago wrote that the omission of the hyphen marks “the incompetent amateur”. Wilson Follet, Modern American usage 428 (1966). Another said that omitting these hyphens creates “a dull headache [, which] is the lesser of evils. H. George Classen, Best Business English 69 (1966). A more recent authority, The Wall Street Journal’s Essential Guide to Business Style and Use (2002), recommends hyphenation High school students, real estate brokers and federal funds rate (page 118).

Why a hyphen High school students? Is it really possible that anyone thinks, in the absence of the hyphen, that the students are stoned on something?

Our beloved editor assures us that this is so – and we take judicial notice of her assurance.

The respondent newspaper, through affidavits submitted by its editors, argues for a rule of reason. They say that every editorial decision whether or not to include a hyphen should hinge on the clarity of the sentence. WAFFLER, J., seems to agree with this position. Each judgment, he suggests, should depend on the particular sentence. MARTINET, J., suggests that in an editorial on hate speech, the use hate free speech (without a hyphen) as an antonym of hate speech is reasonable and clear.

We do not agree. Freedom of speech is a much more traditional and common expression than hate speechand the simple combination of hate free speech (unhyphenated) suggests that people might literally hate free speech. This Court has always valued freedom of expression, and we deplore errors suggesting otherwise.

As for the suggested rule of reason approach, it doesn’t make sense to put writers in constant decisions about whether to hyphenate. We might as well adopt a rule that a period should only be included at the end of a sentence if the reader does not know that the sentence has ended. Or that names should only be capitalized when it might otherwise be unclear whether it is a person’s name. From where anita (we know it’s a name) but Carol (because, if it’s not capitalized, you might think it refers to a Christmas song). We do not approve of such spelling fallacy.

We favor clear lines and uniformity, when feasible, and therefore declare that hyphens in speech without hate and tax-and-expense The politicians—and all similar phrases—are required. On these points, Ms. Short-Dash’s remarks are well founded.

On his third point, however, Short-Dash falters. There is a well-known exception to the hyphenation of phrasal adjectives: when a two-word phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly, the sentence does not have a hyphen. From where nationally recognized figure, newly discovered evidence and wholly owned subsidiary. According to a leading authority, “compounds formed by an adverb ending in lily plus an adjective or participle (like largely irrelevant Where elegantly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun. The Chicago Style Manual § 7.86, at 444 (17th ed. 2017). see Associated Press Style Book 341 (55th ed. 2020) (“No hyphen is needed to link a two-word phrase that includes the adverb very and all adverbs ending in -ly.”). The phrase federally recognized tribe falls under this exception. We therefore reverse on this point.

Partly affirmed and partly reversed.

FUSSBUDGET, J., agree.

I write separately to say that I wish the majority had gone even further to characterize the two abuses at issue as outright illiteracy – and to note that the omissions are merely emblematic of the general decline of our civilization.

I therefore disagree with the quote by the majority of The Chicago Style Manual and the Associated Press Style Bookwho give far too much leeway to hyphens: “Where no ambiguity could result, as in welfare administration Where graduate student housing, the hyphenation is unnecessary. § 7.84 to 444; see also Associated Press Style Book 341 (55th ed. 2020) (stating, in my opinion incorrectly, that “no hyphen is necessary” in compounds of two words when “the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen “). Ad hoc punctuation leads to chaotic punctuation.

MARTINET, J., partly concurring and partly dissenting.

I would reverse the precedents establishing the exception for -ly adverbs. The rule favoring hyphens should be a no-exception rule. Although I am in favor of clear rules, I would erase from our analyzes all the nuances that give rise to exceptions and hasty determinations.

ANOMIE, J., dissenting.

The “rule” at issue in this case is outdated and hopelessly elitist. This requires people to know the difference between a noun phrase (cautious investor) and a phrasal adjective (prudent investor rule— according to the reasoning of the majority). The thing is, people don’t learn grammar in school anymore. They don’t know the parts of speech. The mere presence of a hyphen makes the average person uneasy. Hyphens are a means of oppressing scribes, intended to create an “upper class” of people who understand their intricacies.

Besides, any sort of uniformity in punctuation is undesirable. It stifles people’s creativity and hampers their thinking. So I disagree.

WAFFLER, J., dissenting/concordant.

On the one hand, I can see the usefulness of hyphens in rare sentences (e.g., possession-of-marijuana load). On the other hand, would anyone really misread discrimination based on national origin, tax refund anticipation loanWhere danger zone rule? I’m not so sure. They might, but they might not. See quotes from Judge Fussbudget. I am ambivalent: while I somewhat agree with the majority, I can also see the value of the points raised by ANOMIE, J. I would order a report and then take the case under advisement indefinitely.

Bryan A. Garner became a legal lexicographer as a freshman law student in 1981. Since 1994, he has served as editor of Black’s Law Dictionary. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanAGarner

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.

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