Monthly Archives: November 2014

We’ve got plenty to be thankful for (including hyphenated noun phrases)!

As we begin to enter the holiday season in earnest, many of us are reflecting on the things we are most thankful for.  I am thankful for my relatively sane family, my adorable dog, and, of course, hyphenated noun phrases.  What, you may ask, is a hyphenated noun phrase?  It is a phrase consisting of hyphenated words that create an adjective, followed by a noun.  For example: third-party defendant.  A hyphen combines the words “third” and “party” to form an adjective (“third-party”) that describes the noun, “defendant.”

These hyphenated noun phrases have a way of sticking with us.  In the same way that children add apostrophes in front of every single “s” they see once they learn about apostrophes, many of us overzealously hyphenate pairs of words that do not need hyphenation, presumably because we are used to seeing them hyphenated in a noun phrase context.  I have found that the most pervasive offender is “sign-up.”  The absolutely fine term “sign-up sheet” is such a familiar sight nowadays that I often find myself being incorrectly instructed to “sign-up” for something.

Let’s break this down: the two words, “sign” and “up,” are being combined with a hyphen so that they can form an adjective, “sign-up.”  That adjective then describes the noun, “sheet.”  Q: What kind of sheet is it?  A: It is a sign-up sheet.  However, were these two words to be used as a verb, there is no reason to hyphenate.  Therefore, I would sign up for an event on the sign-up sheet. Here are some other examples:

  • Be sure to eat every last bite of your mom’s well-done turkey.  She made sure it was well done because we all know what happens when it’s undercooked.  (“Well-done” describes “turkey.”)
  • Don’t bring up same-sex marriage at Thanksgiving dinner if discussing marriage between people of the same sex will lead to your auntie Ruth going off on a rant, thereby delaying dessert. (“Same-sex” describes “marriage.”)
  • Make sure your wine glass is more than half full during the holidays; a half-full glass is a recipe for disaster.  (“Half-full” describes “glass.”)
  • Your uncle Cleatus is a would-be lawyer; he would be a lawyer if he could properly hyphenate noun phrases, but alas, he cannot even spell his own name.  (“Would-be” describes “lawyer.”)  But he won his small claims case against that one landlord, so he could totally be a lawyer.  He bets it’s not even that hard.

One exception is that words ending in –ly are generally not hyphenated (see above use of “absolutely fine term”).  But thankfully, this general rule will serve you well:  when considering whether to hyphenate two words, ask yourself whether the words are forming an adjective to describe another word.   If yes, hyphenate.  If no, do not hyphenate.  Easy as pumpkin pie!

That is all for now …

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Filed under Grammar, Punctuation

The Scribe’s Tip: Pirates of the Caribbean edition (redux).


Over the next several months I will supplement the Scribe’s Tip with a “Redux” edition—in which some of the tips from the past three years are reposted for the benefit of new readers.

Today’s “Redux” tip comes from the 2003 movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Now, you are probably wondering what a movie based on Spanish and Portuguese sailing legends and folklore could offer writers.  Simplicity.  Consider the following exchange between Captain Barbossa and Elizabeth Swann:

Elizabeth:  Captain Barbossa , I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal.

Barbossa:  There are a lot of long words in there, Miss; we’re naught but humble pirates. What is it that you want?

Elizabeth:  I want you to leave and never come back.

Barbossa:  I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.  Means “no.”

The lesson here?  Avoid overly fussy words—always use the simplest word that means the same thing.  Over time, you will discover that more confident you are as a writer, the simpler your writing becomes.  This is a good thing.  As Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski once observed, “Simple arguments are winning arguments; convoluted arguments are sleeping pills on paper.”  So simplicity is your friend, and less truly is more.

Enough said.

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Filed under Style