Another of my pet peeves is the omitted hyphen in compound modifiers (a problem that haiku poets succumb to far too frequently—there’s a difference between a “late-spring moon” and a “late spring moon,” the latter of which is technically impossible, because the moon can’t be late for anything, because it is what it is). In most cases, no one will misunderstand when such hyphens are omitted—or, as I like to remind myself, no small children will die. But to me such omissions still look unpolished. Adding the necessary hyphen removes all doubt of correctness and also assures a correct meaning, so why not include it? Of course in some cases the deliberate lack of hyphens can change the meaning of particular phrases (usually when they’re not compound modifiers, but might look like it), so at times you do want to make sure you hyphenate—or not—to say what you really mean. As you can see, the meaning is significantly different in the following pairs of phrases, but incorrect meanings nearly always arise from the omission of necessary hyphens in compound modifiers rather than the inclusion of unnecessary ones.
a little-used car a little used car
cross-complaint cross complaint (really, it’s angry?)
third-world war third world war
fine-tooth comb fine tooth comb (do you know anyone who combs their teeth?)
In some cases, the text is better recast, such as when writing about a used car that’s little in size. In haiku and other poetry, I wince every time I see an omitted hyphen in a compound modifier. It’s one thing to take it out deliberately (I can imagine a case where doing so might be useful for poetic purposes, especially in concrete poetry), but it’s quite another to not even realize that it’s an error to omit it. Read the Grammar Diva summary of this issue. Meanwhile, a related pet peeve is when anyone thinks a hyphen is need after an adverb, as in a “lightly-covered” meatball. No—the hyphen is incorrect there. Learn why.
I have many other editorial peeves, not to mention other pet peeves, but also recognize that mistakes can be a source of humour. Needless to say, I’m a great fan of the following websites, and similar sites on Facebook, even if a couple of them have nothing to do with grammar or punctuation. I could add so many more!
—15 January 2012