Hyphenation questions are always in season, as recent chats on both Mike's 4406-7406 list and the Maf make clear. As promised below
, then, a few thoughts on hyphenating compound modifiers, brought on by the semester's first case of nervous overhyphenation (1A Wednesday):FEMA ordered task-force members into New Orleans.... in New Orleans as part of its hurricane-relief actions
Let's start with an observation from old Fowler (which might actually be from Ernest Gowers; I think the hyphen stuff was revised pretty heavily for the 2nd edn of Modern English Usage
"No two dictionaries and no two sets of style rules would be found to give consistently the same advice. There is, however, one principle that seems to command at least lip service from all authorities. This is that the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood, and should be employed only when it is needed for that purpose
When considering whether to hyphenate one pile of words modifying word, then, bear in mind this Fowler principle: "The primary function of the hyphen is to indicate that two or more words are to be read together as a single word with its own meaning."
Thus, coordinate adjectives, which apply their weight equally, aren't hyphenated. A cold, gray day is a day that's cold and gray, not a cold-gray day. Nor are cumulative modifiers, which apply meaning sequentially: A store that offers custom picture framing is one that does framing. What kind of framing? Picture framing. What kind of picture framing? Custom picture framing. "Hurricane relief efforts," above, needs no hyphen because it's cumulative: Hurricane relief efforts are a kind of relief efforts.
When an actual compound -- in the Fowler phrase, two words acting as one -- needs hyphenating remains (and will forever remain) a moving target. Get used to it. But it's not one we can't address sensibly.
Compounds clearly enough understood to be in the dictionary themselves almost never need a hyphen. "Task force," above, is one; likewise "high school" and "ice cream." The only exception would come when such a noun is joined to a participle: "Ice cream cone" need never be hyphenated, but "ice-cream-cone-shaped UFO" needs all three: one joining the compound to the participle and two inside the compound.
Several kinds of compound usually need a hyphen when they precede the noun they modify. Fowler's list:
He singles out noun-participle combos for special concern. Monty Python fans will recall this as the difference between a man eating blancmange and a man-eating blancmange.
Compounds in which the first word is an adverb usually don't need hyphenating (hence the -ly rule in stylebooks) unless the adverb could be taken for an adjective. Fowler gives "little used car" vs. "little-used car."
Obsessive hyphenation is one of those annoying 105-isms that tend to crop up a lot at the beginning of the semester, about which more later. When in doubt, stick to Fowler. Hyphenate because of meaning, not because you don't think you've done enough damage to someone's story yet.