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.

Why We Sometimes Need Commas Between Adjectives, And Sometimes Not

Why We Sometimes Need Commas Between Adjectives, And Sometimes Not

Bradford’s extensive, thorough report
The large gray dialog box
The ugly, unnecessary graphic
The italic, underlined word
The heavy black bounding box

A good friend of mine who has been a writer for years recently took a job in which she has to copyedit. One day she IM’ed me: “What is up with the commas between adjectives? My boss seems to always put them in—but I don’t think they are needed. Are there rules for this?”

Ahhh, the kind of question that warms a long-time copyeditor and grammar teacher’s heart. Yes, my dear, there are rules for this. But most native speakers of English have never heard of them. We simply rely on our “ear.”

The rules start with the official order of adjectives. The large blue dinosaur just sounds more familiar, more correct, than the blue large dinosaur. We always put size before color when describing something: the gigantic green frog, the large black briefcase.

We can put together long strings of adjectives without any punctuation, as long as we follow the official order of adjectives: the valuable old green Mercedes sedan.

The order is first a, the, or a possessive such as my or Tom’s. Then we put evaluation or opinion, followed by the physical description—size, shape, age, color, texture—followed by where it came from, the material it is made of, and finally its purpose or main use. Oh, and we might have one last item before the noun: another noun that helps identify it.

Thus I can describe Brian’s comfortable big old brown soft Italian leather driving jacket sleeve without using any commas, although that is admittedly going a little over the top.

When do we have to use commas? When we use the adjectives out of order, as in the old, uncomfortable sofa (age before evaluation) as opposed to the uncomfortable old sofa; and when we use two adjectives that are in the same category or that are not part of the official categories: her comfortable, affordable alternative (two evaluations).

Besides order, there is another easy test for whether you need a comma. Can you read it with the word and between the adjectives? If so, you need a comma. Her comfortable and affordable alternative? Yes. My dear and old Aunt Sally? I don’t think so. No comma.