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Grammar in Legal English: The Compound Modifier

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The other day I was commissioned to translate a will into English in which the heir inherited voting rights to a jointly owned company. The devil on my shoulder tempted me to add a hyphen (jointly-owned) to the compound modifier; luckily the angel (ahem, grammar police) looming on my other shoulder reminded me there are some rules to follow.

When should you hyphenate compound modifiers, anyway?

Layman and legal English alike require a hyphen between words that modify a noun. ‘Jointly’ and ‘owned’ clearly modify the word ‘company’, but all adverbs ending in -ly are an exception to this rule. Adverbs can’t modify nouns: you couldn’t have a jointly company. It’s obvious in this context how ‘jointly owned’ modifies company.

You also wouldn’t need to add a hyphen if both modifying words are adjectives. For example, I could say there was an old pretty store, and you’d know the store was both old and pretty. However, if I said there was an old furniture store, the reader might have to look twice before knowing whether ‘old’ was modifying ‘furniture’ or ‘store’.

Why does the hyphen even matter in legal English?

Hyphenating compound modifiers is going out of style, but it’s important all the same. If you’re writing a text to be translated, a hyphen is necessary to prevent ambiguity. Let’s take the term “key-person insurance”. If it were missing the hyphen, a French translator might not know whether the insurance covering persons is key or whether the insurance covers a key person. A specialized translator would surely figure out the equivalent is “l’assurance de personne clé” or «l’assurance homme clé», but it’s safest to write your legal texts as clearly as possible.

When you hyphenate your compound modifiers, you make it clear to the reader which word is modifying the noun. Theodore Bernstein illustrates this excellently with ‘small business man’. In this case, the reader might confuse whether there is a small man running a business or whether a man is running a small business.

To the disappointment of grammarians, lawyers and law journals are shifting towards removing the hyphen when the meaning is apparently clear. But clarity is paramount in legal texts that need to be translated or used in other jurisdictions; you should take every caution to make sure the reader understands exactly what you meant to say.

If this is confusing to you and you still don’t know when to hyphenate your modifiers, feel free to drop me a line and we can talk copyediting and grammar!


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