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Another hyphenation question

Crumbly Writer

I know we beat this to death, but I've got another usage. In the following sentence, you'll note that applying the proper hyphenation changes the meaning of the sentence:

"Even if we only keep it as an odd room decoration, it would mean a lot to us."

If I hyphenate "odd room", the sentence transforms into a discussion of the room, rather than the object they're discussing.

Does it make sense ignoring a semi-standard rule when it changes the meaning of a sentence, or is consistency more important, or should I just trash the entire sentence, finding another way entirely to express the thought?

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

I'm not sure why you an issue with this one CW. You sue a hyphen to join two words together to make a compound word with the most common being a compound noun. In the example you have the noun room being an adjective and adding another adjective before it to expand on it, thus you have adjective adjective noun with the noun being the decoration of the type 'room decoration' of the sub-type 'odd.'

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Maybe that's the answer, the hyphenation doesn't fit because it doesn't apply in this circumstance. I was looking at "decoration" as an implied noun, with "odd-room" being an adjective, since the "room" wouldn't even be necessary with adjective "odd" qualifier.

Anyone else have an opinion?

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

the sentence transforms into a discussion of the room


Which is why it's not hyphenated. You're not talking about an odd room, but an odd decoration (for a room? or in a room?).

You can put a comma after "odd" (I guess).

ETA: You only need the hyphen when the words need to be joined to make sense. For example:

Let's make up.
Let's wear make-up.

He's hard on us.
His hard-on is [fill in the blank]

Replies:   REP  Crumbly Writer
REP
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


You can put a comma after "odd" (I guess).


A comma would define the intent, however the rules of grammar say no comma.

@ CW

Even if we only keep it as an odd room decoration


You could reword it to: Even if we only keep it as an odd decoration for the (or this) room

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

You only need the hyphen when the words need to be joined to make sense.

That's only one type of hyphenation. The other type is grammar based, and subject to style guidelines (i.e. for me they're optional but not following them might break you 'consistency' advice).

But, I trust this case is questionable enough it won't cause questions if I don't include it.

Crumbly Writer

@REP

You could reword it to: Even if we only keep it as an odd decoration for the (or this) room

Doesn't work, as they currently have no room, and are only keeping the item in the hopes they can use it in the future. However, the "room" is entirely optional (it just helps place a context around the use of "decoration").

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@REP


A comma would define the intent, however the rules of grammar say no comma.


Why would the rules of grammar say no comma? (I'm not being facetious here. I really do suck at grammar.)

odd room decoration

The noun is "decoration."

"odd" is an adjective modifying the noun (odd decoration).

Isn't "room" being used as an adjective here too? What type of decoration? A room decoration.

So when you have a list of adjectives, don't you put a comma after each one except the one to the left of the noun?

odd, room decoration

ETA: No comma. When the adjectives cannot be reversed you don't use a comma.

room, odd decoration

that makes no sense

richardshagrin

So it is a hotel that is being decorated and the even numbered rooms don't have this particular item. It an odd (numbered) room decoration. I don't see the hyphen as needed.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Why would the rules of grammar say no comma? (I'm not being facetious here. I really do suck at grammar.)

ETA: No comma. When the adjectives cannot be reversed you don't use a comma.

I agree, if I don't hyphenate the phrase, then the comma makes the sentence clearer, removing any potential confusion with the term.

Crumbly Writer

@richardshagrin

So it is a hotel that is being decorated and the even numbered rooms don't have this particular item. It an odd (numbered) room decoration. I don't see the hyphen as needed.

Sorry, but I'm trying not to release story details, but the people in question currently have NO room, as they were just released from jail. They want 'the item' simply for its memories, for nothing more than to decorate their room so they remember their episode, or so they want people to believe.

REP

@Switch Blayde

Why would the rules of grammar say no comma?

Grammar Girl has a good explanation of serial adjectives. The explanation suggests a simple test. Try to insert and between the adjectives. If the phrase makes sense, you are dealing with coordinate adjectives and they should be separated by a comma.
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/commas-with-adjectives

Even if we only keep it as an odd room decoration


In the above phrase, the position of both odd and room seem to indicate that they are being used as adjectives. What CW is trying to say isn't clear, and the phrase needs a change. But there are 2 interpretations to what CW might mean by this phrase:

1. It is a decoration for an odd room, which should be punctuated with a hyphen (odd-room decoration).

2. It is an odd decoration for a room, and in that case, it would be best to reword the phrase.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Even if we only keep it as an odd room decoration

You must not hyphenate 'odd-room'. Doing so changes the meaning from an odd decoration of some room, to a decoration of an odd room.
I am almost certain you don't need a comma between 'odd' and 'room', however, I recommend using one.
You could consider 'odd' to be modifying the noun phrase 'room decoration'. As I understand it, that indicates the "royal order" of adjectives can be used - and no commas are required provided you put the adjectives in the order that sounds natural.
You are always allowed to bring one of multiple adjectives to the front of the list and follow it by a comma to emphasise it.
For your example, I suggest 'odd, room decoration' would emphasise it as an 'odd' thing to use as a 'room decoration'.

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

"Even if we only keep it as an odd room decoration, it would mean a lot to us."


Maybe you should consider re-wording it to something like:

"Even if we only keep it as an odd decoration for a spare room, it would mean a lot to us."

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

The noun is "decoration."
"odd" is an adjective modifying the noun (odd decoration).
Isn't "room" being used as an adjective here too? What type of decoration? A room decoration.
So when you have a list of adjectives, don't you put a comma after each one except the one to the left of the noun?
odd, room decoration

With due respect, everything you said is correct, except your conclusion.
I think the correct conclusion is you need a comma unless the royal order of adjectives can be applied, in which case you have nothing except a space between the adjectives.
* * *
I haven't figured out this out to my satisfaction yet, but for the purposes of discussion, these are the processes I would use to punctuate a long string of words modifying a noun.
* * *
1. The first step is to find all "compound adjectives" and join them with hyphen(s). [There is an exception for adverbs ending in -ly, but ignore that for the moment. The decision about whether to remove the hyphen will come later.] I think the test is what happens if you delete the final word.
* If the result is complete nonsense, you have a compound adjective, and you need to hyphenate it to the preceding word. Your final word is now a newly hyphenated one. You may need to test if deleting that results in complete nonsense too, in which case you need to find and hyphenate a compound adjective of three or more words.
* If the result still makes sense, and only some detail of meaning has been lost, then you have a single-word modifier.
* If the result still makes sense, but the meaning has been substantially changed, then you have a compound adjective which is potentially ambiguous. You need to hyphenate that, and you cannot remove the hyphen later on even in situations where hyphens are usually not used. An example is 'most skilled workers' when your intended meaning is the workers who are most skilled. The result are deleting 'skilled', 'most workers', still makes sense. That should alert you to the potential ambiguity. Readers might interpret either 'the most-skilled of the workers' or 'most of the skilled-workers'.
- After this step you will have separated all of the adjectives into distinct concepts, some of which may be hyphenated.
* * *
2. The next step is optional, and rarely used.
You may always draw attention to one of your list of (compound) adjectives by bringing it to the front of the list with a comma after it. An example would be if asking someone to select the red ball from a collection of big rubber balls. You would write that as 'red, big rubber ball'.
Note that if you were only identifying one ball you would write 'big red rubber ball' – with no commas. You would not use commas because placing the three adjectives in any other order sounds "unnatural".
* * *
3. The next step is looking for the (compound) adjectives that cannot be moved further away from the noun without sounding unnatural, in which case you do not use a comma before them. For the example of 'big red rubber ball':
* 'red, rubber ball' sounds natural, but 'rubber, red ball' does not. You may then think of 'rubber ball' as being a noun phrase being modified by 'red', so it does not need a comma after the adjective which precedes it.
* Then test 'big, red rubber ball'. It sounds natural, but 'red, big rubber ball' does not. You may then think of 'red rubber ball' as being a noun phrase being modified by 'big', so it does not need a comma after the adjective which precedes it.
That must end once you strike any pair for which the order can be reversed without changing meaning. For example, 'fast, furious chase' means the same as 'furious, fast chase', so whichever order you choose there must be a comma separating them, and commas must separate all other before them too.
* * *
4. Finally hyphens may be removed from some compound adjectives (unless you've decided against that because of potential ambiguity). That applies when when the first word is an adverb ending in -ly. They usually should have no hyphen. The same applies to some common quantifying adverbs not ending in -ly. According to CMOS, that list should be limited to: very, more, most, less, and least.
I may sometimes still feel the need to add commas to provide a visual cue to readers so they can identify a compound adjectives. I would be reluctant to have an unhyphenated compound adjective beside a single-word adjective with a comma between them.
* * *
That all makes perfect sense to me – until it sometimes crashes onto the rocks of common sense.
One example I cannot figure out is 'high school students'. The rules suggest 'high-school' must be hyphenated to get the meaning of students who attend a high school. With a comma after 'high' the meaning is certainly students who have taken drugs but attend any type of school, but it still means that with only a space after 'high'.
Using a hyphen looks wrong to me. I think, in practice, what happens is readers interpret 'high school students' as a noun phrase. I think the only answer to that is to add the comment which exists at the end of every other "rule" of grammar, i.e. '… and if the result looks or sounds wrong, change it to something that feels more natural.' Sigh. :(

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

With due respect, everything you said is correct, except your conclusion.


Which is what I said in my ETA. There should not be a comma there. The Grammar Girl article explains why.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

Sorry.
I missed the significance of your ETA.
* * *
However, I cannot agree it is clear-cut that there "should not be a comma there." It is clear-cut a hyphen is wrong, and a comma is not necessary, but it is certainly acceptable to use a comma.
Without knowing the context of the sentence, I probably would prefer to use a comma.
* * *
The main reason I wrote my post was because, in my view, decisions about whether to hyphenate or use commas are much more complicated than what you described. I was making an attempt to fill in the gaps.
It is not the only time my assessment of articles by Grammar Girl is they over-simplify something to the point of being woefully incomplete.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Which is what I said in my ETA. There should not be a comma there. The Grammar Girl article explains why.

Except, in this case, the extra commas separate "odd" from "room decoration", ensuring it's not seen as a decoration for an odd room.

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

Except, in this case, the extra commas separate "odd" from "room decoration", ensuring it's not seen as a decoration for an odd room.


If it was a decoration for an odd room, it would be "odd-room decoration" with the "odd-room" being a compound adjective modifying the noun "decoration."

This is from Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-a-hyphen), a blog done when someone told her that when she wrote "noise cancelling headphone" it should have been "noise-cancelling headphones."

The reason I didn't say that I absolutely should have hyphenated "noise canceling headphones" is that if leaving out the hyphen causes no ambiguity, some style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, say it's OK to leave it out; and I don't think anyone would read my meaning differently with or without a hyphen.


ETA: As to the comma, the punctuation rules say if you can't reverse the order of the adjectives or you can't put "and" between them and still make sense, you don't have a comma.

Now if the author wants to break a punctuation rule for effect, that's fine. If it's done because the sentence isn't clear as written, re-write the sentence.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Except, in this case, the extra commas separate "odd" from "room decoration", ensuring it's not seen as a decoration for an odd room.

No, the only way to get an interpretation of 'a decoration for an odd room' is to hyphenate 'odd-room'.
Once you have excluded any need for a hyphen the choice about whether or not using a comma gets quite complicated.
Alternatively, you'll never do anything awful when you have only two adjectives if you apply the test SB has suggested - use a comma you cannot reasonably reversing the order (the result either makes no sense or sounds unnatural), otherwise use no comma.
Once you have more than two adjectives, I think you need to work backwards from the pair closest to the noun. Then, as soon as find find any pair that does need a comma, everything before it must have commas too.

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