Saturday, October 3, 2015

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 6: Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

Compound Adjectives before Nouns

If punctuation is a guide to help your reader understand more quickly and easily, then hyphens can be very useful signposts.  One of the most important and overlooked functions of the hyphen is to warn the reader, "Hey, I'm a compound adjective!"  Unfamiliar with the terminology?  It doesn't matter.  Your readers' brains are familiar with the reality.

Take this classic example: 




Hyphens, just like commas, can decide who lives and who dies.

Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

A compound adjective is two words that function as one word to modify a noun.  In "man-eating alligator," man and eating work together as one unit.  It's not a man alligator and an eating alligator.  It's a man-eating alligator.

Rule:  If a compound adjective comes before a noun, you can (and often should) hyphenate it. 

A thin-bladed knife
A 30-mile race
A nervous-looking boy
A leather-bound book
Bird-like legs
A well-known politician

Exception : If the compound adjective uses an adverb ending in –ly, don't hyphenate. This is because the –ly already alerts the reader that this will be a compound adjective.

A badly cooked steak
A wildly painted car
A quickly written memo

Note:  Some people prefer to leave out the hyphen if the meaning is clear without, but that can be dangerous.  The meaning is obvious to you, since you wrote it.  The reader doesn't have the same advantage.  So be careful if you decide to omit these hyphens.  And always be on the lookout for situations where the lack of hyphen can completely change the meaning, as in the examples below.

Hyphens Clear up Ambiguity

From Grammar Monkeys:

Small-state senator (a senator from a small state)
Small state senator (a state senator who is short and thin)

A violent weather conference (a weather conference where people punch each other a lot)
A violent-weather conference (where meteorologists professionally discuss violent weather)

A hot yoga teacher (an attractive yoga teacher)
A hot-yoga teacher (one who teaches yoga in a purposely hot environment, as in the style of Bikram yoga)

From Grammarbook.com (a great resource)

I have a few more important things to do. (A few more tasks remain on my list of important things to do)
I have a few more-important things to do. (I can't do what you suggest because I have tasks that are more important.)

He returned the stolen vehicle report. (At first, most of us will think he returned the vehicle he stole.  Then we come to "report" and we're confused.)
He returned the stolen-vehicle report. (Here it's clear that what he's returning is a report about a stolen vehicle.  The vehicle is probably still missing.)

From Apastyle.org

Students who live in two parent homes (students who split their time between two homes where parents also live)
Students who live in two-parent homes (students who live in a home with both parents)

From Wikipedia:

Zero-liability protection (you are not responsible in any way if something bad happens)
Zero liability protection (you have no zero protection if something bad happens)

Examples I've come across lately in reading:

Hard sell tactics (selling tactics which are difficult to perform)
Hard-sell tactics (aggressive selling tactics which perhaps play on the fears of the potential buyer)

A long deserted chamber (a long—perhaps narrow—chamber that happens to be deserted at the moment)
A long-deserted chamber (a chamber that has been deserted for a long time)

Hyphens Make Reading Smoother

Here are some other examples that aren't so ambiguous but that will still often trip up the reader for a moment if you leave out the hyphen.  Making your reader stop to think and re-read is something you should reserve for clever plot twists, elegant and thought-provoking lines, or intriguing ideas.  Don't make them stop and re-read because of lacking punctuation. 

Steel-plated boots
Custom-made device
Death-dealing steel
Decent-sized vessel
Grey-haired man
Sword-shaped hole
North-facing terrace
Cream-colored stones
Dirt-eating scum
Fire-lit faces


Remember that if you want to wrap your reader in your characters' world, you need to provide as few pointless distractions as possible.  And unclear punctuation is one of the biggest culprits in the world of pointless distraction.

For more in this series:
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 5:  Adjectives with Commas



Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at http://www.melindabrasher.com.

2 comments:

  1. Melinda, I love this topic. I cover it in The Frugal Editor (http://bit.ly/FrugalEditor along with a lot of other mistakes that authors often make without knowing it. I also cover the difference between style choice and grammar rules. I mean, our English teachers didn't teach us everything and most of them knew nothing about publishing! (-:

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  2. Melinda, what a great article. I love all the examples. I use hyphens, but hadn't thought of some of the word combinations you have listed for easier reading.

    And, love that image!

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