23 May 2016

Left-handed Style--How to Refer to Lefthanders

When do you you use "left-handed" and when "left handed"? That pesky hyphen!

What do style manuals say about how to punctuate "left handed"? For example, which is correct?
  1. Left-handed compliment
  2. He batted left handed
Answer: They are both correct.

As a compound adjective or adverb:

Left-handed or left-hand, used as an adjective or an adverb, is hyphenated. Examples: Left-handed batter, left-handed compliment, left-handed scissors, left-handed writing. Or, he throws left-handed (I suppose it could be "left-handedly"). Also, left-hand turn, left-hand-drive car, left-hand side of the road.

As a noun it is also hyphenated: left-handedness. "Left handed" by itself is not a noun. "Left-hander" is a noun, but it could also be written "lefthander".

Many compound nouns started out as separate words, then got hyphenated, but now are concatenated. Living-room evolved to livingroom.  E-mail is now generally email. So Barak Obama is a lefthander.

If I am holding something in my left hand, I obviously don't need a hyphen. "Left", in this case, is just an adjective describing the hand that is doing the holding. You would never say "I saw a red-sunset" or "I have twin-sons". It is only when you want to use a two-word or three-word adjective that you need to unify it with a hyphen (or hyphens).

But what about an adjective that follows its noun? E.g. Is Barak Obama left handed, or is Barak Obama left-handed? Style guides seem to say that a compound adjective after a noun doesn't need a hyphen.

As an adverb following its noun it would be hyphenated: "She writes left-handed".

Never "lefthanded"? I don't see anything wrong with "lefthanded compliment" or even "lefthanded batter". Style guides would seem to suggest "left-handed compliment", but if you can be clear without cluttering it up with a hyphen, then why not? The "fth" looks kind of awkward though. 

There are many ambiguous situations. For example, is it "left-hand turn lane" or "left-hand-turn lane"? An argument could be made either way, and you had best consult the style rules for the publication you are writing for. 

Here are links to the hyphenation guidelines of some respectable publications:
The Chicago Manual of Style is a great reference, but it is behind a paywall.

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