Rosky Legal Education

Happy September!

In this season of back-to-school nights and end-of-summer sales, it’s a good time to make sure you are clear on the rules for hyphenating compound adjectives.

Read on to find out whether you are using this innocuous little line correctly. 

Until the next tip!
Dianne Rosky

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

The basic rule is straightforward: you need a hyphen to join two (or more) modifiers if the words taken together modify a noun that follows. Got that?

A couple examples:
  • A one-page letter
  • A well-established rule
The hyphen essentially tells the reader that one modifies page, and well modifies established.
But don’t hyphenate when the noun comes before the modifier:
  • The letter is one page.
  • The rule is well established.
While the hyphen adds a bit of polish and shows that you know your stuff, I admit that most of the time it isn’t strictly necessary to convey meaning. But sometimes a hyphen actually changes a phrase’s meaning. Here are two examples:
  • A gay-rights advocate may or may not be gay, but definitely advocates for gay rights. A gay rights advocate is definitely gay, but doesn’t necessarily advocate for gay rights.
  • To take a third-party deposition you need a subpoena, because the witness you seek to depose is not a party to the lawsuit. But to take a third party deposition, you just need stamina: the first two depositions of parties were probably exhausting.
I <3 Hyphens
One of my favorite word games is spotting compound adjectives that can be misunderstood if you leave out the hyphen: used car salesmen, violent weather conferences, antlered deer hunters, and high school cheerleaders. On the other hand, here’s a phrase that should not be hyphenated, unless you are describing a sordid situation indeed: used women’s clothing.

When you’re torn about whether to add a hyphen, ask yourself whether the first modifier modifies the second modifier, or the noun itself. If the former, you need a hyphen to indicate that relationship. So, back-to-school used-car shopping, anyone?

Hyphen-mug image from

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Sounds, the Pronunciation App
Recommended resource

One of the bigger challenges facing the international lawyers I work with is pronouncing English sounds clearly. Not surprisingly, there's an app for that. In fact, there are many. Here are two I recommend: and Sounds, The Pronunciation App. Carry your own pronunciation expert around in your pocket. 

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