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  • Writer's picturethebrinkof

Spare the hyphen and spoil the phrase.

Don’t be niggardly with the hyphen. Doing so can wreak havoc. On the other hand, insert those little sawed-off lines in the right places, and you’re in hyphen heaven.

Let’s deal with the havoc first. An entertainment writer tells us, “Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove is one of my favorite local places to park my car and just wander looking for a snack, like a happy hour-seeking missile.”

Missile mistake

Hyphen grave

I’ve never known a happy missile, nor am I familiar with an hour-seeking missile. And I don’t think the writer intended to introduce me to either of them. The simile is botched by the omission of a hyphen. It isn’t enough to connect hour and seeking. Happy must be joined with the two words to produce a single modifying phrase: happy-hour-seeking missile. It’s a missile looking for a happy hour. The three linked words constitute a participial phrase describing missile.

An alternative-health newsletter informs: “Coconut palms take 15-20 years to reach full productivity, which is why coconut oil producers can’t keep up with the insatiable appetite of healthy fat enthusiasts.”

Fat fusion

Hyphen happy

It’s doubtful the author wanted to convey the idea that the enthusiasts he or she referred to were fat, or that the enthusiasts were excited over just any old fat. Nor is it likely the scribe meant to highlight the health (healthy) of those enthusiasts. The meaning one understands after pondering momentarily is that the enthusiasts had insatiable appetites for healthy fat. That point would have been more clear with healthy and fat fused by a hyphen to show it’s the fat that’s healthy. The resulting adverbial phrase healthy-fat acts as a single modifier of enthusiasts. What the enthusiasts like is healthy fat (not trans fat, for example).

Here’s one by a stock-investment newsletter adviser: “Sure, scientists had created natural gas-based fuels, but traditional cars and trucks couldn’t run on it.”

hyphen split


Comprehension of that example’s meaning probably occurs more quickly than with the other examples because, we can assume, almost everybody has heard of natural gas. Still, the sentence could be interpreted as meaning gas-based fuels that are natural, with natural and gas-based modifying fuels separately. It’s unlikely, but possible, that the reader could think gas refers to gasoline. True, gasoline is manufactured and thus not quite natural, but does the writer want to force the reader to stop and think all of that through? To obviate that possibility, all three modifying words should be linked with hyphens: natural-gas-based fuels. The meaning that these fuels are based on natural gas thereby is made crystal clear.

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein, president of the center for Industrial Progress and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, gets the noun modifier both wrong and right in a newspaper essay championing fossil fuels (my reply in a forthcoming blog post). Epstein writes that “advances in pollution reduction were actually enabled by cheap, fossil fuel-generated energy.”

Rising from the dead

Energizer Bunny

He’s not referring to fossil energy that is generated by fuel. His meaning is not that fossils get their energy from fuel, as the omission of a critical hyphen conveys. Fossils are dead. Nothing can energize them, not even the Energizer Bunny. But energy-producing fuels can, and have for a long time, been made from these fossils. Hence, the meaning here is that fossil-fuel-generated energy enabled advances in pollution reduction.

Later in the piece, Epstein gets it right: “all made possible by fossil-fuel-generated energy.”

Fossil fools

Maybe the earlier example was merely a lapse of concentration. Happens to us old fossils all the time. And young fossils some of the time.

#adverbialphrase #participialphrase #hyphen #AlexEpstein #nounmodifier #EnergizerBunny

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