Why “inconsistent” hyphens really aren’t

This post was brought on by a headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which read:

Scotland from coast-to-coast

I could see this headline in my peripheral vision as I drank my morning coffee, and it started to make me antsy. You see, those hyphens shouldn’t be there.

A coast-to-coast adventure, sure. But not simply coast-to-coast.

This is an issue I deal with all the time, and it’s often difficult to convince non-language-nerds that there’s any rhyme or reason dictating when hyphens are used and when they are not. Often, people flag the sometimes-use of hyphens as “inconsistent.”

But it isn’t. Here’s why: When used as an adjective that precedes a noun, descriptive phrases like “coast-to-coast” are hyphenated. That’s what’s happening in the example “coast-to-coast adventure” I used above. Otherwise, hyphens are a no-no — which is one reason why “Scotland from coast-to-coast” is wrong. (The “from” makes it even *more* wrong, because once hyphenated, coast-to-coast essentially becomes one word, and therefore does not have the necessary “from” and “to” for this phrase to work — it makes about as much linguistic sense as simply saying “Scotland from coast” — but that’s a whole other problem.)

I edit a lot of accounting educational material, in which the ugliest example of this is the lower-of-cost-or-market-value rule, which dictates that companies must disclose the value of their inventory at the lower of cost or market value. When these two uses appear often in one document, it can be difficult to convince non-editors that they hyphens are really there (or not) on purpose. But it’s true!

So feel free to go on a coast-to-coast adventure, but afterward, please write about how wonderful it was to see a country from coast to coast.