Feb 122014

Bryan Garner is a lawyer whose range of work on the topics of writing and rhetoric is humbling – to me as it should be to you, too. His blog is a gas. Here he is, just the other day, on one of my favourite topics, the hyphen (or, more precisely, hyphens “in phrasal adjectives”):

     When a phrase functions as an adjective, the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Professional writers and editors regularly do this. Search for hyphens on a page of the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker and you’ll spot many. But less-polished writers often fail to appreciate the difference that adjective can make (consider criminal law professors vs. criminal-law professors). And for some reason, lawyers resist these hyphens. To prevent miscues and make your writing clearer, you should master the art of hyphenating phrasal adjectives and consider the guiding principles every time you encounter one.

Here’s the rule: if two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun, those words should be hyphenated {second-year associatecase-by-case analysistrade-secret protectionsummary-judgment motionbreach-of-contract claim}. [The possible phrases are infinite. For more examples see Garner’s Modern American Usage 625-26 (3d ed. 2009); The Redbook 46-47 (3d ed. 2013); The Winning Brief 278-83 (2d ed. 2004).]

But there are exceptions. Do not hyphenate the phrase in these situations:

(1) When a phrase begins with an –ly adverb:newly admitted lawyer;legally permitted actioncalmly spoken argument. An exception to this exception applies when the phrase is longer than two words. Hence: poorly-thought-out strategy.

(2) When the phrase contains a proper noun: a United States diplomat; that famous Civil War battle; the Pablo Picasso painting.

(3) When the phrase is borrowed from a foreign language:de novo reviewhabeas corpus petitionprima facie case.

(4) When the phrase follows the noun it modifies: that rule is well known (vs. a well-knownrule); a claim of bad faith (vs. a bad-faith claim);action for unlawful detainer (vs. unlawful-detainer action). But there are some fixed phrases that are invariably hyphenated even if they follow the noun {cost-effectiveold-fashionedshort-livedstar-studdedtime-tested}. In general, these hyphenated, fixed phrases will be listed in a dictionary.

If you’re still uncertain about why you should hyphenate, ponder the plain meaning of small animal veterinarianhigh school dropout, or one armed bandit.

There’s more, all delightful.


“What distinguishes effective from ineffective legal writers,” notes Garner, “is empathy for the reader.”

(h/t LH)

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