Hyphenation: when and why?

When writing multi-word adjectives, hyphens can be important. But many writers use either too many or too few. This blog post is my attempt to clarify the situation (as I understand it).

The basic issue is that “adjective noun noun” can be hard for readers to parse. The default is to understand it as (adjective (noun noun)). For instance, “benign data race” would usually be read as “a data race that is benign” rather than “a race on benign data”.

So, if you want to indicate the other parsing, ((adjective noun) noun), you should add a hyphen. For instance, “shared-memory operation” is parsed as “an operation on shared memory” rather than “a memory operation that is shared”.

Note that “adverb adjective noun” doesn’t have this problem, because (adverb (adjective noun)) isn’t a valid parsing. For instance, a “weakly consistent system” has to be a “system that is weakly consistent” because a “consistent system that is weakly” doesn’t make grammatical sense. So there’s no need for hyphenation here.

Featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.


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