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Hyphens for Compound Adjectives AFTER Determiners?

Ross at Play
Updated:

I spotted a quite frequent situation where there is no need to hyphenate compound adjectives before nouns - because there is no potential for ambiguity.

Consider the noun phrase 'most skilled workers'. That could mean either:
* most of the skilled workers, or
* the workers with most skills.

A hyphen is needed for 'most-skilled' if the meaning is the workers with most skills.

BUT ... what if the noun phrase begins with a determiner, e.g. the, their, these, three?

Note that 'most workers' makes sense, but 'the most workers', 'their most workers', ... do not! 'Most-skilled' is still a compound modifier, but there is no potential ambiguity about what 'most' is modifying when the noun phrase begins with a determiner. If the number or scope of the noun has already been specified by a determiner, then any subsequent "quantifier" in the noun phrase can only be modifying another modifier.

I would not necessarily recommend all authors attempt to apply this. However, it does seem like another way authors can reduce the number of compound adjectives they feel compelled to hyphenate without any risk of creating a potential ambiguity.

There are already two situations where authors may routinely choose to not hyphenate compound adjectives: when one of the words is either 'very' or an adverb ending in -ly. By their very nature - Oh, fuck! I just wrote an exception to the "rule" I am about to state - those words can never modify nouns: they can only modify other modifiers.

I suggest this as another class of compound adjectives that are always safe omit a hyphen.

When a compound adjective is used in a noun phrase headed by any determiner
AND the compound adjective contains any sort of quantifier
THEN it is safe to not hyphenate the compound modifier

I would be interested if anyone comes across any examples where my "rule" may not work properly.

robberhands

@Ross at Play

Do you believe omitting a hyphen in a compound adjective will allow me to feel the same excitement as you?

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@robberhands

Do you believe omitting a hyphen in a compound adjective will allow me to feel the same excitement as you?

I don't care that you may not care.

I imagine some here currently experience a sense of dread every time they realise they're about to write a compound adjective. Maybe they will feel a bit excited to learn that their checking process can for many cases be reduced in the future to 'This has a compound adjective but it satisfies A and B. So no hyphen. Move on'. If they don't feel excited by that, I think they should.

Replies:   robberhands
robberhands

@Ross at Play

It's not that I don't care, I just prefer consistency more than the economy of omitting a hyphen. I hyphenate compound modifiers when they come before a noun, no matter whether it's needed for clarity or not. Some dictionaries even state "If two or more adjectives are functioning together as a single unit, we must use hyphens".

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play
Updated:

@robberhands

I hyphenate compound modifiers when they come before a noun, no matter whether it's needed for clarity or not.

My brief answer to that is that you're preaching to the already converted.

My long answer is that my personal preference is:

DITTO to what robberhands said

I do not see unnecessary hyphens in compound expressions as anywhere near as much of a burden on readers as unnecessary commas are. In many cases I think hyphens make it easier for readers, by clarifying exactly what is meant.

Even if they are a net burden to readers, I prefer to be consistent and to be sure no reader will ever need a double take to figure out what is meant. That, to me, is a major catastrophe which careful authors should constantly be seeking to prevent.

We are in a minority here. :(

There are a lot here who do try to omit hyphens when they decide it is safe. There are a few authors here who are careful and experienced enough to make mistakes only rarely. But I'm sure they still make a few. I cannot say what they do is wrong, but my recommendation to most authors is to not even try.

My OP is directed at those who - against our better judgment - are determined to go on omitting hyphens when they assess it is safe. I think I've found a class of situations where it is safe. I'd still recommend they should stop there and routinely use hyphens in all remaining situations.

My OP does say

I would not necessarily recommend all authors attempt to apply this.

Replies:   robberhands
robberhands

@Ross at Play

In this case I apologize. I misinterpreted your intention.

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Thanks, Ross. That's handy to know, but it delves into a level of detail that's more problematic than it is helpful. If I start asking 'does this or doesn't it', I'm more likely to rephrase the entire sentence. Thus, I doubt I'll ever pay much attention to this one exception to the always hyphenate multi-word adjectives guideline. :(

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

always hyphenate multi-word adjectives guideline

That's what I do and what I would recommend to others.

I actually had Switch in mind when I wrote the OP.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

How about some examples to wrestle over (both from a chapter I just happened to be revising at the time):


… it conforms to what we know of the physics of dark energy and the potential for

silicon-based life …


and


We've encountered an unusual life form which lives entirely in space, and are apparently silicon based.


In both of these examples, there's no confused if you drop the hyphenation, as "gravity based" can't mean (or modify) anything other than "life form". Adding the "and are apparently" just makes it more so.

Still, in both cases, I prefer consistency, despite the sentences clarity, and continue hyphenating each (though the second example it doesn't have anything to modify.

I ran across a third example, but didn't save it at the time and am now having trouble locating it. :(

"Faster-than-light travel" is another example. For whatever reason, the hyphens aren't necessary, as "faster than light" can't mean anything else, and can't modify anything other than "travel". Still, I continue hyphenating it. After all, like other style uses, I'm training my readers to pay attention to hyphenations, rather than merely clarifying their meanings.

Meanwhile "As Al was communicating with their far-flung associates" pretty much needs its hyphen, despite the addition of "their" (just don't ask me why).

Likewise, clarity is the entire purpose for hyphening any phrase beginning with "well" (ex: "their well-meaning benefactor"), even though it's not needed to understand the sentence.

Replies:   robberhands  Ross at Play  REP
robberhands

@Crumbly Writer

You leave me a bit confused.

In both of these examples, there's no confus[ion] if you drop the hyphenation, as "gravity based" can't mean (or modify) anything other than "life form". Adding the "and are apparently" just makes it more so.

So far I can follow.

Still, in all three cases, I prefer consistency, despite the sentences clarity, and continue hyphenating each (though the second example it doesn't have anything to modify.

Now you lost me. What three cases? I only see two and both times you could hyphenate 'silicone-based'.

… it conforms to what we know of the physics of dark energy and the potential for silicon-based life …

and

We've encountered an unusual life form which lives entirely in space, and are apparently silicon-based.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

How about some examples to wrestle over

No wrestling from me. I'd do the same when writing in AmE. With BrE the 'silicon based' is hyphenated both before and after nouns.

Although I would change to 'and is apparently silicon based'. :-)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

Now you lost me. What three cases? I only see two and both times you could hyphenate 'silicone-based'.

Sorry, as I noted, when I started writing the message, I was anticipating three different examples but discovered I couldn't locate the third (though I later added some additional examples). However, in the last example (which you list) "silicon based" would not be hyphenated as the phrase doesn't modify anything (instead, "apparently" modifies "silicon based").

It gets confusing, I know. My point, earlier, is that this all gets confusing enough, I'd rather not have to parse each individual sentence, simply because I'm likely to get them wrong. :(

Replies:   robberhands
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Although I would change to 'and is apparently silicon based'. :-)

Duh! You're right. Since the narrator is describing "life forms", they're a singular-form plural entity. I hadn't noticed that on my first pass. Good catch.

robberhands

@Crumbly Writer

However, in the last example (which you list) "silicon based" would not be hyphenated as the phrase doesn't modify anything (instead, "apparently" modifies "silicon based").

'Apparently' modifies silicon-based - that's correct. But 'apparently silicon-based' modifies the noun phrase 'an unusual life form which lives entirely in space'. You don't have adjectives in a sentence which modify nothing - at least as long as you don't write total nonsense.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

'Apparently' modifies silicon-based - that's correct. But 'apparently silicon-based' modifies the noun phrase 'an unusual life form which lives entirely in space'. You don't have adjectives in a sentence which modify nothing - at least as long as you don't write total nonsense.

Except for things like "well-meaning", though that's hardly a commonly accepted style usage, but you're correct about "apparently silicon based" modifying the rest of the sentence, but you wouldn't hyphenate "apparently" in that case (again, don't ask me why), so I assumed the adjective phase contradicts treating the entire phrase as a three-word adjective.

Ross, hopefully you can shed some light on why this might or might not be the case.

robberhands

@Crumbly Writer

you wouldn't hyphenate "apparently" in that case (again, don't ask me why),

'Apparently' is an adverb, modifying the compound adjective 'silicon-based'. You never hyphenate 'ly' adverbs.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Ross, hopefully you can shed some light

'Apparently' is an adverb ending in -ly. It modifies the compound adjective 'silicon-based'. The phrase 'apparently silicon-based' is called the "predicate" of the verb 'is', and modifies its subject, which is 'unusual life form'.

In AmE, compound adjectives are not usually hyphenated when used as predicates. You have berated for this, but I tell authors who use AmE I will not check whether particular compound adjectives should be hyphenated because I don't know a reliable way to check.

In BrE, it's easy. The rule is compound adjectives including a participle are hyphenated in all positions. For others I check if the Oxford Dictionary lists it with a hyphen.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

I actually had Switch in mind when I wrote the OP.


I do what sounds right to my ear, which includes sentence flow.

robberhands

@Switch Blayde

I do what sounds right to my ear, which includes sentence flow.

Usually I do that as well but how do you hear a hyphen? 'Silicone based' and 'silicone-based' sound different to you?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ross at Play
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

I do what sounds right to my ear, which includes sentence flow.

I was explicit in not criticising what you do. I think this could make it easier for you to make choices you can be sure are reasonable.

All I'm suggesting is that if you notice anything of the form determiner quantifier adjective noun, you know it's safe to not use a hyphen - without even checking whether you have a compound adjective. It's a simple test that does not allow through anything which is potentially ambiguous.

The presence of a determiner makes a difference. Any quantifiers following one can only be modifying another modifier: they can no longer be modifying the noun. If you can't see that then my suggestion is useless to you.

Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

'Apparently' is an adverb, modifying the compound adjective 'silicon-based'. You never hyphenate 'ly' adverbs.

Except, by your opinion, it's not an -ly adverb but a three-word adverb, so that restriction shouldn't apply. However, Ross explained how it works ("compound adjectives aren't hyphenated when used as as predicates"). That's good enough for me, though it still doesn't explain why "apparently" apparently works without a hyphen while the rest doesn't (IMHO, though I could very well be completely off base about it).

Replies:   Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I do what sounds right to my ear, which includes sentence flow.

That's usually my final test, though I'm open to correction—unless it doesn't sound as good as what I had.

Switch Blayde

@robberhands

Usually I do that as well but how do you hear a hyphen?


Same way you hear a comma. Same way moving a sentence to a paragraph by itself jumps out at you. Do you want to hear a single word or two words?

Replies:   robberhands
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Except, by your opinion, it's not an -ly adverb but a three-word adverb, so that restriction shouldn't apply.

A computer programmer should understand the concept of nesting. Yes, there is a three word adverbial phrase functioning as the predicate of 'is'. Within that you have a two-word compound modifier which could be hyphenated (it would be in formal BrE and many using AmE would choose to). No hyphen is needed when the compound modifier is further modified by an adverb ending in -ly.

Ross at Play

To CW & robberhands,

However comfortable I am with always hyphenating compound adjectives before nouns (except 'very' and -ly adverbs), there are still occasions it feels like overkill to me.

I recently came across this phrase wood panel walls and silk screen doors.

I have no doubts that both 'wood panel' and 'silk screen' are compound modifiers, but I really can't bring myself to hyphenate those two.

Even the Pedants from Chicago say there are times when it's better to not bother. An example they give is student housing administration.

And would either of you consider writing high-school students? Note that if you don't the literal meaning is school students who're high on drugs???

The thing that distinguishes all of those examples is, IMO, the two-word compound modifier has sufficient familiarity that it's safe to assume readers will interpret it correctly.

Personally, I find the occasions I am tempted to omit the hyphen occur most frequently when both words of the compound modifier exist as common nouns. I almost always use a hyphen when either word is some other part of speech. An exception to that is high school students. For that the pairing is so familiar that readers are sure to interpret it correctly.

I believe consistency is very important, but not to the extent where being consistent would result in something that looks plain stupid.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

I have no doubts that both 'wood panel' and 'silk screen' are compound modifiers, but I really can't bring myself to hyphenate those two.


We've discussed this before and I pointed to Grammar Girl: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-use-a-hyphen

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.


What I don't understand about your OP is the adverb piece. We're talking about compound ADJECTIVES.

Replies:   Ross at Play
robberhands
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

Same way you hear a comma. Same way moving a sentence to a paragraph by itself jumps out at you. Do you want to hear a single word or two words?

A comma marks a pause in a sentence and that's what I 'hear'. But I always hear blue-green as two words, no matter if they are hyphenated or not. I hyphenate blue-green because it's only one color but two words. Blue-green is not the same as blue and green. If I'd want to hear a single word, I would have to write turquoise.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

What I don't understand about your OP is the adverb piece. We're talking about compound ADJECTIVES.

Okay. 'Adjectives' and 'adverbs' are somewhat of misnomers. More rational names for those would be 'adnouns' and 'adothers'.

Adverbs can modify anything functioning as an adjective and the result is a compound adjective.

Ross at Play

@robberhands

But I always hear blue-green as two words

I think this is another case where SB and CW know what they are doing but their efforts to explain what they do are misleading.

Would it make sense to you if I said I can "hear" 'blue-green' as a single concept requiring an indivisible pair of words in the context of my sentence?

robberhands

@Ross at Play

I recently came across this phrase wood panel walls and silk screen doors.

I have no doubts that both 'wood panel' and 'silk screen' are compound modifiers, but I really can't bring myself to hyphenate those two.

I think 'wood panel wall' and "silk screen door' resist hyphenating because there is no compound adjective. In both cases a string of three nouns create a new noun - a compound noun. It's not a 'wooden-panel wall' or a 'silken-screen door', wich would mean a compound adjective before a noun.

The 'high school students' actually should be hyphenated to 'high-school students' but sometimes you have to bow to custom and practice even if it's wrong.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@robberhands

I think 'wood panel wall' and "silk screen door' resist hyphenating because ...

I agree they do, but why? I don't agree with your explanation. I think you're thinking like a German who instinctively wants to write Woodpanelwall and Silkscreendoor. :-)

In strictly grammatical terms, as a native speaker of English, I still say that both 'wood panel' and 'silk screen' are functioning as compound adjectives. b>BUT ... we agree hyphenating them seems too weird to even contemplate.

I can see some validity in your view that both of those phrases are (effectively) three-word compound nouns. Whatever their internal construction may be, that is how those phrases function in the context of an entire sentence. Perhaps that is a reasonable test to apply, i.e. is an entire phrase functioning in a way that readers will naturally interpret as a multi-word noun phrase?

I have observed that times I resist using hyphens, even when I logically conclude something is a compound adjective, are usually when both words exist as common nouns. That's consistent with your comment you'd have no problem writing 'wooden-panel wall' or 'silken-screen door'. I would do that too.

One question ... Do you feel the same excitement as I do about finding a hyphen in a compound adjective which may be omitted?

Replies:   robberhands
robberhands

@Ross at Play

One question ... Do you feel the same excitement as I do about finding a hyphen in a compound adjective which may be omitted?

Since I don't regard wood panel or silk screen as compound adjectives, I'm not omitting any hyphens and don't feel any excitement.

Dominions Son

@Ross at Play

Note that if you don't the literal meaning is school students who're high on drugs???


Maybe the students are in an airplane.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play
Updated:

@Dominions Son

Maybe the students are in an airplane.

... becoming mile-high school students.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Ross at Play

becoming mile-high school students.


That could put them in Denver, Colorado.

REP

@Crumbly Writer

as "gravity based"


not in your example ????

Uther_Pendragon

@Ross at Play

Consider the noun phrase 'most skilled workers'. That could mean either:

* most of the skilled workers, or

* the workers with most skills.


I didn't interpret "most skilled workers" as a compound adjective but I take "most" for an adverb in this case. It modifies "Skilled."
My understanding of the rule is that a hyphen must be used when it is a two-word noun being used as an adjective -- "High-school teacher" of "Labor-Day picnic." The best editor I have ever had, a man I regard as the best editor on SOL, disagreed with me about the latter.
The hyphen is still in the story, though.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Uther_Pendragon

I didn't interpret "most skilled workers" as a compound adjective but I take "most" for an adverb in this case. It modifies "Skilled."

That is by definition a "compound adjective": any combination of words which functions as a single modifier of a noun. It does not matter which parts of speech the individual words of the compound are.

The reason the rule on hyphenating compound adjectives exists is they can create ambiguities. That is one. It could be 'workers' modified by 'most skilled', or 'skilled workers' modified by 'most'. If the writer means the former they must hyphenate 'most-skilled' so readers will know.

There are two general exceptions when hyphens are not needed, although it's not considered wrong. They are when the first word of a compound adjective is either an adverb ending in -ly or 'very'. No hyphen is needed for those because those words always modify the following word.

My understanding of the rule is that a hyphen must be used when it is a two-word noun being used as an adjective

Not quite. A hyphen may always be used but not necessarily must be. Apart from the two general exceptions I've already mentioned, most style guides suggest it is acceptable for hyphens to be omitted when there is no possibility of an ambiguity. That takes great care. Many authors prefer to always use hyphens, for both consistency and the guarantee no ambiguities will slip through.

I agree with you that 'high-school students' is correct but I'd guess very few would write it that way, even among those who recognise it is correct. That one is a bit of an anomaly; I think because the expression 'high school' is so familiar.

I would not hyphenate 'Labor Day picnic' either. My reason for that is the title case is enough to establish 'Labor Day' as an indivisible compound expression.

I am not trying to be contrary here. I consider the rules for punctuating multiple modifiers before a noun as by far the most tricky part of English grammar - and that's still not enough. There are still many situations where the correct way to punctuate them is not the best way, i.e. the way that is easiest for readers to understand the intended meaning.

richardshagrin

Is "proof-reading" an oxymoron? (Lose the dash, proofreading is the correct spelling.)

Speaking of Lose:
'Loose' or 'lose'?
Loose and lose are two completely distinct words, with different meanings and pronunciations. Below is a quick reference table outlining the differences between lose and loose:
Lose Loose
pronunciation: rhymes with booze rhymes with goose

verb forms lose;losing;lost loose; loosing; loosed
main verb meaning: to release something
to be unable to
find or keep something


*Note: the Oxford English Dictionary does have entries for 'lose' as a noun (one meaning 'an instance of losing', the other 'praise; renown'), but neither is listed in our dictionaries of current English.

You can read more about and find further examples of the differences between the two words on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

I wonder about "loser"? Maybe Oxford doesn't keep track of insults?

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