“Before the New York Times laid off a large number of its copy editors, I might have assumed they knew what they were doing.”

From a Los Angeles Times column by June Casagrande headlined “Delving deep into the rules of hyphenation”:

A New York Times article on Hong Kong reported that “the territory erupted in monthslong protests last year over a proposed extradition law.” My eye stopped at “monthslong.”

The New York Times has its own house editing rules, so I can’t be sure that the term is wrong in its world. Before the newspaper laid off a large number of its copy editors a few years ago, I might have assumed the folks there knew what they were doing when they left the hyphen out of “monthslong.” But now, I’m less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. They should have gone with “months-long.”. . .

If you write that you saw a man driving a pickup, no one will lose your meaning just because you didn’t write pick-up. So there’s no need for most people to spend hours or days researching a surprisingly complicated set of rules about what to hyphen when.

There’s a rule for hyphenating compound adjectives like family-friendly: Use a hyphen if it helps.

There’s a rule for hyphenating nouns like “mix-up” and verbs like “self-regulate”: Always check a dictionary.

There’s a rule for hyphenating prefixes like “co”: Skip the hyphen, “coauthor.”

There’s a rule for hyphenating suffixes like “able”: Skip the hyphen, “workable.”

Then come the exceptions — lots of them — which render “happily married couple,” “co-worker” and “gentleman-like” all correct, even though they contradict the rules I just listed.

If you’re looking for a simple way to hyphenate well, just follow this guideline: Hyphenate adjectives, prefixes and suffixes only when the hyphen might help the reader. For nouns and verbs, check a dictionary if it’s important or go with your gut if it’s not. . . .

But all that effort won’t save you from writing “monthslong” in place of “months-long.” Yes, you’ll know that suffixes are usually attached with no hyphen: teachable, fearless, clerkship. But who said “long” is a suffix?

It’s tempting to think of “long” as being just like “able” and “less” and “ship,” which are both words and suffixes. But “long” is not a suffix. It’s just a word. So the rules for hyphenating suffixes don’t apply.

How can you know when a word is also a suffix? The answer is in the dictionary. Look up “ship” and you’ll see entries for it as a noun, a verb and a suffix. Look up “less” and you’ll see it’s an adjective, an adverb, a noun, a preposition and a suffix. Then look up “long” and you’ll see it’s not classified as a suffix.

Once you know that, you can analyze what “months” and “long” are doing in a sentence before a noun like “protests.” They’re working together as an adjective, modifying the noun. So the rules for hyphenating compound adjectives say that, in most cases, you should hyphenate two words that come before a noun to modify it, giving you “months-long protests.”

The writer is author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.”

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