So there I was, describing the problems in the 250-page manuscript and Valerie said, “Wow, that’s unbelievable. Do you teach this stuff?”
Of course, I have taught it. When you’re supervising editors, you’d better be able to teach them what you want and why. This particular manuscript required the utmost in professionalism. So people were interested.
What piqued Valerie’s admiration was my description of the rules for hyphenating compound adjectives, which are as arcane as the spelling of “through” and “rough.”
Here is a simple example: “the big baby blue bus.” Many people will identify that a hyphen is needed between baby and blue, but they’re not sure why. Here is the reason: because baby describes blue, not the bus. Okay, that’s easy enough; “the big baby-blue bus” is correct.
But to make matters more confusing, if the adjective appears AFTER the noun, no hyph is needed: “The big bus is baby blue.” If you’ve got an adverb in there, it’s no longer a compound adjective and again no hyphen is needed. “The big, very blue bus.”
Another point to watch for is a compound noun used as an adjective, such as "self-care strategy." The only way to discover that "Self-care is the foundation of self-esteem" is correct—that both self-care and self-esteem are comound nouns—is to look them up in the dictionary.
Now, what if a verb is involved? On the web you are often invited to “log in”—yes, that’s a verb. But you do this on the log-in page (compound adjective) using your personal login (a noun). Mercy!
It is not just us web heads who suffer. In the course of one morning, a teenage girl might make up her bed, take a make-up test, and apply her makeup without ever being aware she has negotiated the perils of hyphenation hell.