275 – Grammar tip: hyphens

Many people, perhaps most, don’t know how to use hyphens with compound adjectives. It’s worth learning because use or non-use of hyphens can make a difference to how people interpret your meaning.

I remember learning about various rules of grammar in school, but I don’t think my teachers ever mentioned the use of hyphens with compound adjectives. I suspect my teachers weren’t the only ones leaving this out, because it’s so common to see writing where hyphens are needed but absent.

Perhaps it sounds like a nit-picky grammar-nerd sort of issue that people don’t really need to worry about, but in my view it is worth paying attention to. At the very least, good use of hyphens is a skill that can help make your text more readable. And in certain cases the omission of hyphens can change your meaning in serious ways.

Here are some examples where hyphens avoid ambiguity, misinterpretation, confusion or just nonsense.

A violent-weather conference is a conference about violent weather.
A violent weather conference is a conference about weather, and the conference is violent.

A small-state senator is a senator from a small state.
A small state senator is a state senator who is small.

Built-in cupboards are cupboards that are fixed into the house.
Built in cupboards describes something that was constructed within cupboards.

A first-aid post is a post that provides first aid.
A first aid post is an aid post that is, in some sense, ranked first.

What is going on? The hyphen is binding together the two words that precede the noun. When they are bound together, they apply jointly to the noun. First-aid is one thing. A small-state is one thing. These bound-together things are adjectives because they describe the following noun. (What type of senator is she? A small-state senator.) They are compound adjectives because they consist of two or more words.

grammarIf we leave the hyphen out, the two words are not bound together and the last word in the pair moves over and belongs to the noun instead. The first word in the pair remains an adjective, but it’s now on its own, describing the next two words. (What type of weather conference was it? A violent one.)

In most cases, omitting the hyphen(s) from a compound adjective doesn’t cause as much ambiguity as the above examples. However, it often does affect the reading process, as the reader has to spend at least a little bit of time working out from the context whether or not the first two words in the phrase are linked together or not. With hyphens in place, a reader can just whiz along without having to puzzle about how to interpret the words. I think it makes the process of reading more relaxing and enjoyable.

Here are some examples from academic research papers where there should have been hyphens but they were originally omitted:

diffuse-source pollution
water-use efficiency
water-quality benefits
information-collection activities
cause-and-effect relationships
land-use change
land-use policy
water-sensitive cities
policy-relevant questions
spur-of-the-moment decision
long-term planning
short-term effect
systems-level interactions
low-impact option
short-term solution
long-term projects

If you’re excited by this stuff, you might like to know about some ifs and buts related to the use of hyphens in this way.

A compound adjective occurring after the noun don’t require a hyphen.

I have a water-proof jacket (hyphen).
My jacket is water proof (no hyphen).

Sometimes a particular pair of words can be a compound adjective in one situation (requiring a hyphen) and a noun in another situation (requiring no hyphen).

This is a long-run trend (with hyphen).
This trend will continue in the long run (no hyphen).

Multiple adjectives don’t need hyphens, only compound adjectives. In “an articulate intelligent person”, articulate and intelligent are two separate adjectives, so they don’t need a hyphen.

If the first word in the compound adjective is an adverb (skilfully, happily, stupidly), don’t use a hyphen because it’s obviously linked to the next word.

A skilfully negotiated result.
A happily married man.
A stupidly designed policy.

Finally, note that hyphens are not the only way to indicate that a set of words is a compound adjective. Here are some alternatives that you might prefer in some situations.

Quotation marks: The politician flashed his “trust me” smile.
Title Case: I found the Perth City Council building. (Often used for titles.)
Italics: It was an ad hoc decision. (Often used for foreign phrases.)

In these cases, you don’t also need to include hyphens because it is obvious that the words in quotes, title case or italics belong together.

274 – Tokenistic policies

Many government actions are tokenistic. They are too small to really make a difference, but they are pursued anyway. Why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?

Listening to ABC Radio National’s breakfast program this week, I heard an interesting interview with Professor Hugh White from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He was arguing that the current response to the IS threat in Syria and Iraq is too small and constrained to achieve any significant impact on the progress of IS.

“If you find yourself, as I think we do today, undertaking military operations without making them big enough to give yourself a reasonable chance of success, you’re just going through the motions and you’re better off not doing it.”

“Going through the motions doesn’t make strategic sense and I don’t think it makes moral sense either.”

jetWhat struck me about this argument was its similarity to my own argument about some environmental investments by governments. Starting with dryland salinity, I argued that our investment was spread too thinly across too many investments for any of them to be successful. Reinforcing this, the Australian National Audit office concluded that the level of change in land management in well-monitored cases was about one percent of the level needed to achieve stated targets.

More recently, I’ve been researching other aspects of water quality (nutrients and sediment) and there too governments tend to hugely under-fund projects. For example, funding to protect the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria from nutrient and sediment pollution is around 2% of the level that would be needed to achieve the official target of a 40% reduction. (See PD210)

One question is, why do governments do this? The reasons probably vary from case to case, but I think there are two main factors. The first is, to be seen to be doing something. At least in some cases, the government realises that the funding allocated is woefully inadequate, but they proceed with the policy anyway because they think there is electoral advantage in being seen to be doing something, rather than nothing. So this is a cynical political motive.

In other cases, I think the reason is ignorance, combined with a lack of evidence and analysis in the policy-development phase, combined with a tendency towards excessive optimism about the effectiveness of a proposed policy (PD213). That was the problem with the salinity policy. Lots of people thought it was a good idea to have a policy to combat such a prominent national problem, but very few people had enough knowledge of the science and economics of salinity to recognise that the policy was badly misconceived and would achieve little. The policy approach adopted was an evolution of earlier programs (the National Landcare Program and the Natural Heritage Trust) rather than one designed after careful analysis of what it would really take to substantially reduce the impacts of salinity.

This second reason is, perhaps, less offensive than raw cynical politics, but it’s still terrible.

Another interesting question is, how do they get away with it? Why is there not more public anger directed at these politically motivated or ill-conceived policies? Here are some possibilities.

Complexity. The issues I’ve talked about are complex and multi-faceted. It can be difficult even for experts to work out what policy response would be most effective. Most people lack the expertise to judge whether any particular policy response will be effective. They don’t have the time or inclination to learn enough to make those judgements. They therefore trust governments to do what they say they are doing.

Time lags. For some of these issues, the effects of current management would not be felt for some time – years or even decades in the future. By then, it’s hard to make the connection back to policies that were put in place previously, and judge whether they made a positive difference.

Intractability. Some of these problems could be solved but only at exorbitant expense, while others can’t be solved at all in any practical sense. I suspect that governments sometimes recognise this and then implement the least costly policy they think they can get away with politically.

Communication challenges. I was interested that, in her interview with Hugh White, the program’s host Fran Kelly did not pursue questions about the tokenistic nature of the policy, focusing instead on other issues. Perhaps she felt the argument was too complex or subtle to be comprehended by people eating their Weet Bix. Or perhaps she herself didn’t recognise its significance.

Sometimes an underfunded policy does explode into political controversy because of its ineffectiveness, but usually they don’t. Normally, they drift along, spending money and going nowhere much. They might receive an adverse review from some government committee or inquiry, but governments tend not to respond substantively to those sorts of reviews if they think they can get away with it.

Overall, policy tokenism is an understandable but regrettable aspect of our system of democratic government. It is hard to combat, but sometimes can be changed by outside pressure, either from the public or from vocal expert commentators.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 54(4): 437-456. Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Roberts, A.M. Pannell, D.J. Doole, G. and Vigiak, O. (2012). Agricultural land management strategies to reduce phosphorus loads in the Gippsland Lakes, Australia, Agricultural Systems 106(1): 11-22.    Journal web site here ♦ IDEAS page for this paper