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Anti-multiple-hyphen tendencies

 © PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesA leading story in Irish current affairs this year has been the government’s controversial creation of Irish Water, which will charge people for their use of water, and the ensuing nationwide protests. The outcry is about much more than the water charges – there is deep, widespread anger about how the country is being run – but for convenience the protests are generally referred to as anti-water charge protests, with phrases like anti-water charge group/rally also in use.

Anti-water charge X is the usual style in Irish news media, but to my proofreader’s eyes there is a problem with its punctuation, specifically the underuse of hyphens. Hyphens don’t extend beyond the two words or morphemes that they join. So when I see anti-water charge protest, my mind for a moment conjures the concept anti-water – I take a small step down a semantic garden path. Some news outlets have used anti-water protests, but this is even more misleading.

The responses when I mentioned this on Twitter were interesting. Other editors agreed, with one saying even an en dash (anti–water charges protest) wouldn’t save it. Another reader preferred anti water-charges protest, but this leaves anti- stranded, which is unacceptable in formal English because anti- is a prefix.

Journalists’ reluctance to use multiple hyphens may owe to newspapers’ convention of avoiding it because of column width. But I see the same aversion in fiction, academic writing, and elsewhere. Given the degree of uncertainty over punctuation among writers of all stripes, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them simply weren’t sure whether multiple hyphenation was allowed. So the broken style persists, and spreads by imitation.

In the last few days I’ve seen the similarly under-hyphenated anti-social justice websites (for anti-social-justice websites), self-driving car fantasists (for self-driving-car fantasists), and Paris Principles-compliant institutions (for Paris-Principles-compliant institutions or Paris Principles–compliant institutions; sometimes an en dash is used in such cases).

The potential for ambiguity varies. The capitals in Paris Principles-compliant mechanism mean the phrase is unlikely to mislead, but in anti-social justice websites the familiarity of anti-social compared to social justice could make readers hesitate. Hyphenating the full compound solves this. Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh, in his book Lapsing Into a Comma, uses the example anti-child abuse program to highlight the significant difference a hyphen can make; on Twitter he gave the analogous example ‘anti-police brutality movement’.

Walsh writes that ‘what you must not do is arbitrarily decide to disconnect the unit by using only the most obvious hyphen and ditching the rest. Hyphenation is often an all-or-nothing proposition.’ I tend to agree. Hyphens misused can misdirect. But even when their presence or omission is trivial and non-life-threatening, getting it right (or as right as possible; there are grey areas) matters as a courtesy to readers. It gives them confidence in the writer-editor-publisher team.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Love the discussion on hyphens. I used to work for attorneys who collected delinquent property taxes. Were they Delinquent Tax-Attorneys? Or Delinquent-tax Attorneys? Problem is, they never used any hyphens, so it was anybody’s guess.

  • Thank you so much for this discussion. As a managing editor for a regional magazine (in the States), I’m often wrestling with this issue. The only concession I’ve made to our style is to use the en dash (a la CMS) when necessary with capitalized phrases, but stick to hyphens for clarity wherever needed.

  • I’m wondering what should be done when using two phrases separated by a slash to show opposition. “Red/blue contrast” seems fine, and so does “the red state governors”. But which seems better to you: “red-state/blue-state competition for federal funding” with hyphens, or “red state / blue state competition for federal funding” with spacing around the slash?

  • Thomas: Nice example. The hyphenless delinquent tax attorneys is amusingly ambiguous and therefore open to misinterpretation, even if largely ironic or jocular. I would definitely use delinquent-tax attorneys here (and no capitals).

    Virginia: You’re very welcome, and your approach sounds sensible to me. The use of en dashes in such contexts is more common in the US than on this side of the Atlantic (and as you suggest is particularly suited to capitalised phrases), but multiple hyphenation as a technique is often overlooked for no good reason.

    John: Normally I disprefer spaces around a slash, but in your example I favour the open style because it looks less cramped and overworked: it’s simply more legible. But I wouldn’t object to red-state/blue-state competition, which is correct too and by no means unclear.

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