There is, I have learned, a broad gray area between editing and jittery, ham-fisted niggling. Consider the hyphen, so squidgy and so inconspicuous. And so much discussed. It is a key, of sorts. Fresh copy editors happily indulge in frequent hyphenation, which leads ripened ones to nourish the idea that moderation in hyphenation is a sign of sophistication. The would-be (hyphen!) authorities, falling assfirst out of the journalism tree, who compose whole hyphen chapters festooned with examples and exceptions, do not help. What is needed is a practical rule, simple to remember, that people who do not obsess unnaturally over these things can apply without fuss.
The problem is, this is not easily forthcoming. The battleground, chiefly, is the phrasal adjective (or compound modifier), when two or more words immediately precede, and together describe, another word. Phrasal adjectives appear when you turn expressions like a minimum of two drinks into a two-drink minimum. The whole point is an echo of the schoolyard coda, Go along to get along. Linking two to drink with a hyphen demonstrates that two and drink go along together to describe minimum.
The importance of the hyphen is easily demonstrated by any phrase that contains a negative or pejorative adjective like unfair, corrosive or hazardous, as in the phrase hazardous-materials team. A strict reading, without the hyphen, can lead to ambiguity. (Is the team hazardous? Be honest, it probably is.) Using a hyphen makes clear at least one meaning of the sentence; writers tasked with discussing a bumbling, rubber-suited (hyphen!) cleanup crew are on their own.
In fact, it is this ambiguity that leads experienced editors to argue that many hyphens are unnecessary. The classic example, proffered by the hyphen advocate Bill Walsh, is orange-juice salesman. No one, these subtlety-seekers (hyphen!) argue, is going to think the salesman is orange. Not so fast. I have seen enough handwritten faxes sent to newsrooms in the dead of night to know that sooner or later, somewhere, someone is going to think so; and enough other people will be tripped up by the absurdity, if only momentarily. If you are writing to be clear, then be clear.
Once the careful writer has embraced that simple-to-remember (hyphens!) rule, refinements and exceptions can be considered.
- Extra hyphens are needed in phrasal adjectives of more than two words, as in championship-game-winning hit, and in cases with more than one phrasal adjective, as in second- and third-grade students.
- Skip the hyphen with quotation marks (“ice cold” beer), proper nouns (that Ted Williams swing), and in most phrases that end in -ly (an early morning meeting). These already are sufficient clues that a phrasal adjective is at work.
- If, despite the ambiguity, the meaning of the phrasal adjective remains substantially clear, as in health care plan (a “care plan for health” equates roughly with a “plan for health care”) or if part of the phrasal adjective can be deleted without substantially changing the meaning, as in light blue scarf, then the use of a hyphen can be safely dispensed with.
Examples like these are not as common as you might think, however, and a great many can devolve into matters of whisker-tugging (hyphen!) debate, as in foreign aid bill or real estate agent. Never mind that often what you are dealing with is not a phrasal adjective at all.
What you are left with is a nettlesome problem, perhaps not worth the calories expended in thinking about it. But if it matters to you, and if you are not sure what to do, hyphenate first and wait for someone else to ask the questions.