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:
Maybe this falls into the category of hyperbole.
Three things about these compound adjectives:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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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.
One of my favorite errors to point out is an unhyphenated compound adjective. A compound adjective is when two words work together to modify a noun, and you need to connect those two words with a hyphen. If you leave out the hyphen, you get the first word modifying the second word, and this can lead to serious ambiguity. I wrote about missing hyphens recently here. Go look at the article—it contains examples. People don’t usually put in the hyphen if they don’t need it, but I found an unnecessary hyphen today. The article is interesting, too, if you like astronomy.
By blowing a wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge “cavity,” a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have.
You’re reading along, and suddenly you wonder, “a region of low-density what?” That hyphen told you “compound adjective here” so you expected a noun. Maybe you filled in the noun yourself—low-density vacuum. Or perhaps you re-arranged the whole sentence, “…a very low-density region surrounding…” Or maybe you picked the simplest solution and removed the hyphen—a region of low density.
Perhaps some science writer has been reading this blog and got over-enthusiastic about hyphens. (I flatter myself. I’ve never gotten a comment from a science writer about anything.) Here’s the picture that goes with the article.
Oh—one other thing I need to be curmudgeonly about: Don’t write “prior to” when you mean “before.”