Okay, I must admit this was a funny one:
The Pratt Tribune, a tri-weekly newspaper out of Pratt, Kansas, printed the headline, ‘Students get first hand job experience’, over the weekend
I don’t know why Americans are so afraid of hyphens, because the rule is really simple.
- If you’re making a compound adjective (i.e. using two adjectives, one to describe the second), hyphenate the two if they appear before the noun being enhanced, e.g. “a laughably-stupid editor” (that would be the idiot working for the Pratt Tribune). If you don’t hyphenate the two words, the first adjective* (laughably) is left dangling out there, and sometimes you won’t know whether it applies to the following adjective (stupid) or to the noun (man). Linking the two words with a hyphen makes it quite clear.
- If you’re using the compound adjective separately from the noun, i.e. after a verb — “The editor is laughably stupid” — then the hyphen is unnecessary because laughably can only be referring to stupid.
The headline above is what we used to call a howler because the word hand could equally apply to the noun job, but in fact it refers to the previous word first. The sentence should read, “Students get first-hand job experience” (or even “firsthand”, in this case) but even then, the editor should have spotted the likelihood of the howler caused by the proximate occurrence of hand before job, and written “Students get job experience at first hand” instead.
What’s even funnier is that the hapless editor probably has an English degree from a college or university. Draw your own conclusions, but he’s clearly not a well-read man. (See how that works?)
And finally: in the U.K., “prat”[sic] means “stupid person”, which seems appropriate in this case.
*I know, “laughably” is actually an adverb, which is what one normally uses to enhance an adjective, but let’s keep the instruction simple.