This is Why We Have Hyphenated Adjectives

rogersgeorge on July 20th, 2017

We call them compound adjectives. Sometimes when you have two (or more) adjectives before a noun they both refer to the noun. The big red boat, for example.

But sometimes the first adjective refers to the second adjective, and together they modify the noun. Black-eyed Susan, for example.

So here’s a comic to illustrate what might happen when you forget that hyphen.

Free range eggs!

Mightn’t you say that the first adjective is really an adverb? After all, don’t adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs? Good point. That’s why we use the hyphen, to show that two adjectives are working together. If you used an actual adverb, you wouldn’t need the hyphen. A messily ruined shirt, for example. No hyphen.

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Portmanteau Words

rogersgeorge on May 22nd, 2017

Seems to me I mentioned these guys recently, but I’m too lazy to do a big search for my post about them (I think it was a post about buzzwords). Besides, this Dagwood oops Blondie comic is a good example of these words.

A portmanteau is an old kind of suitcase, usually made of leather, and usually with some kind of straps. You put unrelated things inside, hence the analogy with portmanteau words, parts of unrelated words put together into one word.

Blondie - 05/16/2017

“Ever-popular” is just a plain old compound adjective.

A Surplus of Hyphens

rogersgeorge on April 28th, 2017

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of three-word phrases unnecessarily hyphenated. Here’s an example:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have peace-of-mind knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Sorry, but those hyphens aren’t necessary. Here are a few more: inch-by-inch, time-of-day, up-to-date, over-and-over. These would all make fine compound adjectives, but don’t hyphenate them unless they are adjectives! For those hyphens to be correct, the writer of that sentence would need something like:

Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have a peace-of-mind situation knowing the contents on your computer are protected.

Those other examples might be inch-by-inch examination, time-of-day readout, up-to-date message, over-and-over excuses. An exercise: when you see one of these, supply your own noun the adjective phrase to modify. But when they’re by themselves, don’t hyphenate them.

Compound Adjectives

rogersgeorge on June 17th, 2016

Sometimes you have a word that together with another word modifies a noun immediately following it. You separate these words with a hyphen (actually you join them with that hyphen). So you can have an after-hours party, for example. You can do this with more than two words, too, such as an after-the-fact pronouncement. I don’t recommend that you get carried away, but it is possible to do, as Brooke McEldowney demonstrates by describing a remarkable quandary in his excellent comic, 9 Chickweed Lane:

9 Chickweed Lane

Maybe this falls into the category of hyperbole.

Three things about these compound adjectives:

  1. If you leave off the hyphen it means something different. In my first example above, without the hyphen you end up being after something called an hours party, whatever that is.
  2. Really common compounds often end up becoming single words. We used to have pre-nuptial agreements, but now it’s a prenuptial agreement. Same for pickup truck. Even “today” used to be “to-day.”
  3. Don’t hyphenate if it’s not an adjective. You can do something after the fact. And you can party after hours!

PS. I just started to re-read a book I had read as a teen-ager, The Egg and I by Betty McDonald. It was published in 1945, and made quite a mark at the time. They even made a movie out of it. The movie featured Ma and Pa Kettle, predecessors to the Beverly Hillbillies. But I digress. The first chapter of the book has this sentence; it serves as an example of the gentle humor typical of the book:

This I’ll-go-where-you-go-do-what-you-do-be-what-you-are-and-I’ll-be-happy philosophy worked out splendidly for Mother, for she followed my mining engineer father all over the United States and led a fascinating life; but not so well for me, because although I did what she told me and let Bob choose the work in which he felt he would be happiest and then plunged wholeheartedly in with him, I wound up on the Pacific Coast in the most untamed corner of the United States, with a ten-gallon keg of good whiskey, some very dirty Indians, and hundreds and hundreds of most uninteresting chickens.


Hyphenating Phrases

rogersgeorge on May 11th, 2016

We use hyphens for several things in written English. One of them is when we use two or more words together as an adjective. We call this a compound adjective. Compound adjectives are a little tricky because sometimes you can use the same string of words, but they aren’t used as an adjective. For example:

They were separated for two and a half years.

It was a two-and-a-half-year separation.

Here’s another, from the same source. (This time he got it right. Look a little more than halfway down the article):

a seven-year-old girl

And my example of using the phrase correctly the other way:

The girl was seven years old.

Notice that the word “year” doesn’t have the “s” in the adjective uses. We don’t show plural in our adjectives in English.