Dear Fellow Students,
I understand your confusion. Truly, I do. I, too, am also plagued by the misunderstandings that accompany the misuse or nonuse of hyphens.
As your apparent puzzlement indicates, you are well aware of the purpose of the hyphen. You know that when two words which modify one another are used to modify a third word, the initial two words should be hyphenated. For instance, let’s take the completely arbitrary words “Tobacco”, “Free” and “Campus” to make the phrase “Tobacco Free Campus”. Without a hyphen, this phrase is much like the Wonder Twins without their rings of power: kind of confusing, a little awkward, and possibly useless. The phrase could be taken to mean that you are currently standing on a campus that is made entirely of tobacco and to which entrance is free of charge. You could also interpret the phrase to mean that tobacco products are hurled at students on this campus with no expectation of compensation (albeit, that requires a slight stretch of the imagination).
However, insert the ring of power (the hyphen, in this case) into the equation, and, as surely as those Twins of Wonder will transform into a puddle of water and a walrus, the vague phrase is changed to one that makes perfect sense: a “Tobacco-Free Campus” is clearly a campus on which tobacco products are prohibited.
Now, the school which we attend does not appear to understand how confounding some phrases can be without hyphens. They have placed signs throughout the buildings which could be interpreted in any of the ways listed above. Yes, they should have had the signs checked by a copy editor. Yes, you are evidently baffled by their meaning. Never fear. I am here to clear things up once and for all.
I feel confident in saying that, despite the lack of hyphens, the signs posted on every entrance and exit door on campus do have one correct interpretation, which is as follows:
Stop filling the balconies where I study with your disgusting cigarette smoke.
Glad I could help you out in your quest for truth.