Tuesday, September 2, 2008

When To Hyphenate Adjectives

The astute reader of the last column on commas with adjectives may have noticed that in the example Brian’s comfortable big old brown soft Italian leather driving jacket sleeve was lurking a hyphenation question. Shouldn’t Italian leather be hyphenated?

The answer is it depends. Was it an Italian jacket made of leather? Or was it a jacket made of Italian leather?

Wait. Wait. That is breaking my brain. At least that is what my neighbor’s son says when I try to discuss these matters with him when going over his school work.

Let’s start from the beginning. How do you tell if you need a hyphen with adjectives? You ask whether each adjective can be used by itself to describe your noun. If yes, no hyphens. If no, you probably need a hyphen. “Wait. What do you mean by probably?” I can hear my neighbor say. Let’s look at some examples.

Two small green lizards. Can you use the word two by itself to describe the lizards? Yes. There were two lizards. Can you say they were small lizards? Yes. Can you say they were green lizards. Yes. Each of these words can describe the lizards. You don’t need any hyphens.

Five-mile hike. Can you call it a five hike? No. The word five cannot, by itself, describe the hike. You have to combine it with the word mile before you can have a complete unit that can modify the hike. Editors call this a unit modifier. The hyphen combines the two words into one unit.

So far so good. But now comes the probably part. Two things might mean you still do not use a hyphen. One is if the two words are already perceived as a unit by your readers: high school dance. The compound word high school is already a well-known unit. It is even in the dictionary under h for high. Similarly, real estate license and home run hitter.

The other thing you don’t hyphenate is an adverb. If the first word modifies the second, often specifying the degree or intensity of the adjective, then that first word is an adverb. Don’t hyphenate after an adverb. The very small lizard. The completely green lizard. The extremely low discount. The previously described report. The highly motivated employee. The completely correct grammar.

So what about the Italian leather jacket? Without the hyphen, I am saying the word Italian is just one of a list of adjectives describing the jacket. If I had meant that it was a jacket made of Italian leather, I would have needed a hyphen.

31 comments:

Paul said...

Are you still writing here? Anywhere?

I received the following email this morning

> Dr. Jones unexpectedly passed away over the weekend.

I was interested in your opinion of the sense implied by the position of "unexpectedly".

I have read the section on "position of adverb's" in Fowler's "Modern English Usage" some months ago - did not take too much on board (I try to when I read it, but I read voraciously and not a lot always sticks).

But to me the above sentence smacks of the implication "it was unexpected that he died at all"! That old aphorism "in this life, only death and taxes are certain" would make that implication ridiculous (of course you can cheat taxes with death, but that is your own taxes with your own death, your estate will still pay them. I guess if you have no heirs, then you truly can beat taxes :-)

But back to the item at hand, would it not be more correct to state
Dr. Jones passed away unexpectedly over the weekend.

that is to say, it was unexpected that he passed away over the weekend just past?

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