Is “dumb-ass idea” hyphenated? AP updates its guidance on compound modifiers

If you read this blog at all, you know I have an almost pathological love of hyphens. It’s because I believe they clarify intent, especially in the case of compound modifiers.

I like to joke that I prefer to have a “smoking-hot car…”


…as opposed to a “smoking, hot car.”


In its most recent update, however, the Associated Press reworked its rules/guidance/thoughts on hyphens when it comes to “commonly known phrases:”


Journalism professors, editors and everyone else who picks at language took this news calmly and simply as always:


Let’s parse AP’s language on this one:

No hyphen is needed if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, early morning traffic, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.

The first problem with this is that “commonly recognized” creates a lot of trouble, as what is common for some people isn’t that common for others. Sure we could quibble about people who don’t like sports not knowing if it’s “first-quarter touchdown” or “first quarter touchdown” (as if you could score a quarter of a touchdown), but that’s the easy stuff.

Consider the style on issues of transgender individuals:

Sex reassignment or gender confirmation: The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender. Balducci considered having sex reassignment surgery during his transition.

The example doesn’t hyphenate “sex-reassignment surgery,” a term that AP just added in June of 2019, so I’m not sure how this fits with the “commonly recognized” element. Also, given the need for things to be “clear and unambiguous,” I’d imagine it should be more helpful if the hyphen were there to clarify that we are reassigning sex (or confirming gender) in the surgery.

The rules on “public land management” had me perplexed as well, in that public land management could be land management completed in an open, public fashion via governmental agencies while public-land management could be the management and care of only public lands.

(Also, because I’m somewhat demented, I started thinking about things like “the golden shower’ act” (or is it the golden-shower act?) associated with the Russia-scandal dossier. Or as one report referred to it “the ‘pee tape’ controversy.” Or is it a pee-tape controversy? These are the thoughts that keep me awake at night… )

We no longer have “third-grade students,” but we still have “a first-hour class” they must attend. Also, we still have “9-year-olds,” but they’re now in a “third grade classroom.”


Every year, I provide my students with an AP-style worksheet (or is it AP style worksheet?) that has a number of the key rules they need to know. I’ve already had to go back through and change all the percent items because of a change that freaked us all out in March. Before I started messing around with “one-bedroom apartment” or “four-door sedan,” I figured I’d ask the editor for clarification. The “Ask the Editor” folks at AP were nice enough to respond with this:

We don’t have new rules on hyphenation, contrary to what you may see on Twitter. One-bedroom apartment and four-door sedan are correct; we use hyphens in compound modifiers. We continue not to hyphenate terms commonly recognized as a single phrase. We use high school student, not high-school student; real estate agent, not real-estate agent; climate change report; not climate-change report. We change our style on two terms to conform to that guidance: first grade student (similar to high school student) and first quarter touchdown (the lack of hyphen wouldn’t cause anyone to think there’s such a thing as a quarter touchdown).

So, I spent about 20 minutes trying to think about how I could NOT misinterpret “first grade student” but I COULD misinterpret “four-door sedan,” based on hyphenation issues. I was left without a good answer.

The way that I’ve always explained style to students and why they need to learn it comes down to a few things, none of which are helped here with AP’s approach here:


Consistency: The goal of adhering to a specific style is so that everyone who is using a term, a form of punctuation or an approach to writing does so in the same way as everyone else in that field. Sure, there are breaks from the norms here and there, but a lot of those come once we know the rules and consciously decide to go a different way for a good reason. For example, here’s the start of the entry on last names:

In general, use only last names on second reference. When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, generally use the first and last name on subsequent references.

OK, but when you write a feature story about a family that has run a diner for three generations, the last thing you want is a sentence like this:

“Suzy Smith said she talked to Mary Smith about asking their brother, Johnny Smith, to get on board with the restructuring plan, in spite of what Jane Smith and Carl Smith, Suzy Smith’s cousins, wanted to do with the restaurant.”

One of my favorite feature stories a student wrote for me was about a family farm and every time I read it, even 10 years later, I wince at the first name/last name references to everyone. She did it because AP told her to and she feared losing points in the class. Had she asked, I would have told her to break the rule.

Consistency helps us when we move from job to job or from one area of the field to the other. Sure, organizations will implement local style when it comes to certain things, but AP serves as the benchmark for consistency that allows us to avoid looking like idiots when we leave one place and go somewhere else. It also helps to make sure we’re all on the same page when we are looking at a particular way of doing things.


Clarity: I remember talking to a friend of mine in college who was taking Japanese to fulfill a foreign-language requirement (or is it foreign language requirement now?) and I asked him how he was surviving it. (I had always heard Japanese was a really tough language to learn.) He told me English was harder because it has all sorts of rules that have all sorts of exceptions to them, making it almost impossible to be right. Japanese wasn’t a breeze, but at least the rules were relatively clear and standard, he told me.

Think about all the rules English has the require kids to sing songs to help remember them, like,  “i before e, except after c, unless it’s an “eh” like in “neighbor” or “weigh.” No wonder my kid uses text lingo and can’t spell to save her life…

AP presents these stylistics as guidelines and ideals, but they also essentially serve as rules for how we do things. That’s why we, as academics, force the students to read the book and abide by it. When the rules are clear, we all tend to follow them or understand why we are penalized when we fail to do so.

Think about it like a posted speed limit: When the sign says “Speed Limit: 55 mph,” we all understand that’s about how fast the state wants us to drive on that road and most of us tend to drive around that fast. When the police officer pulls you over for going 125 mph in that 55 mph zone (or is it 55-mph zone?), there’s at least a sense of “OK, I understand. I’m going to jail.”

However, there are “guidelines” as to how to drive on roads where there is no posted limit, most of which I would wager we don’t know. For example, in zones with no postings in Idaho, the rules are as clear as mud:

Idaho code 49-654 (1) reads: no person shall drive a vehicle at a speed in excess of the maximum limits: 35 miles per hour in any residential, business or urban district, unless otherwise posted; 65 miles per hour on state highways, unless otherwise posted in accordance with section 49-201(4), Idaho Code, and provided that this speed may be increased to 70 miles per hour if the department completes an engineering and traffic study on the state highway and concludes that the increase is in the public interest and the transportation board concurs with such conclusion; 55 miles per hour in other locations, unless otherwise posted, up to a maximum of 70 miles per hour.

Well, that’s not helpful to me if I’m on a rural road where a farm truck pulling hay is going 25 mph while Parnelli Jones is flying up my keester at 80. I’m not certain if the police would let me get away with, “Yes, officer, I know I was going 70, but I swear I thought this road had a traffic and engineering study that concluded it was in my best interest that this not be an unposted 55 zone!”

If you are in charge of making the rules, try not to turn the situation into a game of “Bamboozled.” Come up with some clear thoughts, stick to them and make life easy on those of us who have to deal with them. (Or, more to the point, easy on those of us who have to teach other people how to deal with them.)


Improvement: It’s a simple rule that I tend to follow, but change is supposed to make things better. If you change something and it becomes worse, that’s a bad thing. If you change things just for the sake of change, that’s dumber than change that makes things worse.

Case in point: My parents bought a really nice luxury SUV with a set of third-row seats. (I’m guessing it’s not third row seats, as I’m guessing a “row seat” might be something crew folks use…) The problem? To use the area in the back for storage, you had to fold up and remove the seats, each of which weighed about 70 pounds. You then had to store the seats in a garage or basement until you needed them again.

I found this to be colossally stupid, because my smaller, crappier SUV had stow-and-go seats, which meant they just flattened out and things were fine. When the next version of this luxury SUV came along, the engineers figured out that having people who could afford luxury drag a set of seats into a garage wasn’t exactly “on-brand.” The newer edition had electric  stow-and-go seats. It was change that created improvement.

To its credit, AP has made numerous changes over the years that have improved things. Issues pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation have shifted over time, and AP has demonstrated its willingness to hear from people affected by those issues and craft the style entries accordingly. It has helped with everything from how to spell foreign leaders’ names to how the internet differs from the World Wide Web (and when to capitalized each of them…). Those changes definitely improved things. Even simple things, like spelling out all the state names instead of dealing with rules over which ones got abbreviated and which didn’t or when to use AP abbreviations and when to use postal abbreviations did make things better.

When they started putzing with punctuation, it made less sense. The hyphens and the percent changes didn’t make sense. For the sake of peace with honor, I could buy the percent sign situation, if forced to do so. However, compound modifiers seem to be pretty simple in general: If the adjectives can’t independently modify the noun, you connect them with a hyphen. AP’s reliance on the “commonly recognized” exception seems like less of an improvement and more of a “We’re just tired of hearing about this, so do what the hell you want” response.

Maybe that is oversimplification that makes me a smart ass, who doesn’t understand the field as well as those who run the AP.


Wait… Make that a smart-ass…

Leave a Reply