Ask our editors: Hyphenation confusion

Hyphens notify a reader that two or more elements in a sentence are linked. So why do hyphens trip up so many people? Fortunately, our editors are on hand to clear up your questions about this misunderstood punctuation mark.
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Q: I’m writing a report which refers to the government of former prime minister of the UK Neville Chamberlain. Should I write ‘the then-Chamberlain government’ or ‘the then Chamberlain government’?

Many thanks,

Mark

A: I have it on the good authority of the Macquarie (AU), Merriam-Webster (US) and Macmillan (UK) dictionaries that there is no hyphen when using ‘then’ in this context, so ‘the then Chamberlain government’ would be correct.

However, as the Chamberlain government was replaced by a new Churchill government, you could probably just write ‘the Chamberlain government’ and that would be perfectly clear. It’s a different matter if you were referring to ‘the then prime minister Chamberlain’, in which case ‘then’ is necessary, though you might be able to skip ‘the’, simplifying things a bit. (As a side note, style guides often advise using lowercase initials for things like ‘prime minister’ and ‘government’ unless you’re writing about the current one.)

Happy writing,

Olivia

Olivia McDowell is one of Editor Group’s editors and proofreaders. You can read her excellent blog on hyphens – our most popular post ever – hereLearn more about our editing services or contact us.

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