Do you question when to use a hyphen?

Photo Credit: Poetprince via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Poetprince via Compfight cc

It’s hard for researchers to avoid lengthy noun phrases. Often those phrases are a jumble for readers to interpret without hyphens. I promised some guidance to the doctoral students in my seminar on scholarly communication this semester. Here goes . . .

The topic of hyphens came up because, in the past couple of weeks, my students have shared drafts of the introduction and methods sections of their research articles. (See my posts with general guidance on research articles.) Here are several noun phrase examples from their drafts (shown without any hyphens for now):

  • traditional employee selection methods
  • scheduled lockup release date
  • proactive career related behaviors
  • corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature

Laymen (and women) may scoff or cringe. This is not plain language. Just remember that the effectiveness of a document can only be judged within its rhetorical context. We’re unqualified as judges when we aren’t the writer’s intended audience. It’s the other researchers in their field who determine what’s “plain” for the research papers my doctoral students are writing.

Lengthy noun phrases are often unavoidable in research written for other researchers. That’s because they express complex ideas efficiently.  If you have to write about corporate initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on the environment and impact on social welfare 25 times in a document for peer researchers, it makes sense to condense that to corporate social responsibility. When such noun phrases become common enough, abbreviations like CSR (or acronyms) are born. Then you don’t have to worry about hyphens — unless you use the abbreviation in a lengthy noun string.

I won’t lie. The prescriptions for using hyphens in written American English are complex. Linguistics Girl describes all seven of them:

  1. With affixes
  2. In compound nouns
  3. In coequal nouns
  4. In compound modifiers
  5. In phrasal modifiers
  6. In numbers
  7. To avoid confusion and misreading

Many of these prescriptions require lots of memorization of idiosyncratic words. Like in #1: you’re supposed to use a hyphen after the prefix pro- plus a list of a dozen more affixes but not with others. Well . . . OK.

And, of course, some words with the same prefix (like proactive) have become so common that the hyphen isn’t used anymore. You could simply refer to a standard dictionary when you have a question about hyphen usage. Researchers, however, use many terms that are not common enough to appear in standard dictionaries (like pro-social). Their only hope is to use the same spelling they’ve seen in the specific research journal they are targeting for their own work. Geez! I told you it was complicated.

I offer researchers two pieces of advice about hyphen usage. First, be consistent with specific terms throughout your document. Spell proactive and pro-social the same way every time. If your paper is accepted for publication, professional editors will apply hyphens as needed to comply with their specific style guide. You just want to be consistent so you don’t signal to the editor and reviewers that you’re sloppy.

Second, avoid ambiguity in compound modifiers (rule #4) by adding hyphens to clarify meaning. Let’s look at one of the compound modifiers used by my students: traditional employee selection methods. Does it mean (a) methods for selecting employees that have been used in the past or (b) methods for selecting employees who have values associated with the past? Ambiguity in compound modifiers is not caused by individual words with multiple meanings. It’s due to the multiple underlying structures possible for a string of words.

noun phrase tree 4
meaning (b)
meaning (a)
meaning (a)

Meaning (a) can be illustrated with the diagram at  left, which shows its internal syntactic structure. Meaning (b) can be illustrated with the diagram at right with a different internal structure. Either structure might be perceived by a reader experiencing the same string of words. Hence — ambiguity and the value of a hyphen to indicate the intended structure and keep the reader from wandering into territory the researcher did not intend.

  • traditional employee-selection method signals meaning (a) by hyphenating employee and selection to show both are modifiers of the head noun (N) method and that traditional modifies the noun phrase (NP) containing the three nouns
  • traditional employee selection-method signals meaning (b) by hyphenating selection but not employee with method to show both are not equal modifiers of it and traditional modifies only the noun (N) employee

I think the compound nouns in my students’ drafts would be less ambiguous with the hyphens shown below:

  • proactive career-related behaviors (career and related modify behaviors; proactive modifies the entire three-word phrase)
  • scheduled lockup-release date (lockup and release modify date and scheduled modifies the entire three-word phrase)

I could be wrong. The only way I’ll know for sure is when they tell me if I’ve chosen the same structure they intended. Then they can use hyphens to make that structure unambiguous for future readers.

(I used the syntax tree generator from Miles Shang to create the “tree” diagrams common in linguistics.)

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