Tag Archive for: compound modifiers

Tax-exempt is exempt from this rule

Generally, one hyphenates compound modifiers that precede a noun, but not when the compound modifiers follow the noun. That means you’d write

  • Low-cost mutual fund
  • A mutual fund that’s low cost

Breaking the rule

That rule has been drummed into me, so I was surprised to read the following in Jan Venolia’s Write Right!: “Idiomatic usage retains the hyphen in certain compounds regardless of the order in which they appear in the sentence.” Venolia uses the following example:

Tax-exempt bonds can be purchased.

The bonds are tax-exempt.

One of my friends “corrected” me on social media when I posted asking examples of more words like “tax-exempt” that are hyphenated even when they follow a noun. I would have done the same thing before I read Venolia’s book.

Style guides and the dictionary

I searched APStylebook.com, which told me to follow the dictionary in hyphenating “tax-exempt.” AP style follows the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which uses a hyphen.

Similarly, a Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) blog says, “For matters of spelling, including hyphenation, Chicago usually defers to the first-listed entries in Merriam-Webster.” That blog post also says there are times that CMOS doesn’t follow the dictionary, as shown in the image below.



Are you confused?

Have these exceptions confused you? They sure as heck confuse me. That’s why I subscribe to the online AP Stylebook, and I’ve added on an online subscription to Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

If you find some hyphen questions arise repeatedly, add them to your firm’s style guidelines.


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Hyphens matter

Hyphen, shmyphen, who cares whether you use hyphens? A Facebook ad drives home the lesson that hyphens’ role as connectors is important.

“Imagine life pain free,” said the ad. This hyphenless sentence could be interpreted as “Imagine getting ‘life pain’ at no cost.” No, thanks, I’ll pass on that offer.

The advertiser should have written, “Imagine life pain-free.” This makes it clear that “pain” relates to “free,” not life. It’s important to use hyphens if their absence changes your meaning or makes it unclear. This is true even though compound modifiers usually aren’t hyphenated when they follow a noun.

In the financial world, the following phrases typically use hyphens:

  • closed-end fund
  • risk-adjusted returns
  • sub-advised funds
  • target-date funds
  • time-weighted rate of return
  • year-to-date period

For more on hyphens, check out these resources:


Punctuation reminder: When an -ly adverb is part of a compound modifier

Should you hyphenate “socially responsible” in the following phrase?

“Socially responsible funds are…”

“Hyphens should never be used with compound modifiers that include an adverb ending in -ly,” as my colleague Hilda Brucker reminds me occasionally. Yes, I make punctuation mistakes, too. This is one of my weaknesses.