LawProse Lesson #151: The art of hyphenating phrasal adjectives.

LawProse Lesson #151: The art of hyphenating phrasal adjectives.

The art of hyphenating 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 associate, case-by-case analysis, trade-secret protection, summary-judgment motion, breach-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 action; calmly 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 review; habeas corpus petition, prima facie case. (4) When the phrase follows the noun it modifies: that rule is well known (vs. a well-known rule); 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-effective, old-fashioned, short-lived, star-studded, time-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 veterinarian, high school dropout, or one armed bandit. Next week: More about phrasal adjectives (phrases denoting periods of time and amounts, phrases with common elements, etc.). For further reading, see: The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 1.60, at 44-47 (3d ed. 2013). The Winning Brief 276-83 (2d ed. 2004) (3d ed. forthcoming, with an expanded list of common phrasal adjectives in legal writing). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 674-75 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 625-28 (3d ed. 2009). The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.91, at 227-28, §§ 7.81-.85, at 373-84 (16th ed. 2010). William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual §§ 813-32, at 224-40 (10th ed. 2005).

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