Friday, May 27, 2011

From the Bad Advice Files

Someone sent me a link to a blog post about hyphenated compound adjectives in which the rules were completely mangled because the author didn't distinguish between adjectives and adverbs. (I'm not going to link to that original post because my purpose is not to embarrass or harass that author, but to state the correct rule.) This is one of those things that causes a crapton of confusion, so I thought it would make sense to review the rule. (Related posts: how to identify compound adjectives, squinting modifiers)

First, you have to know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

Adjectives modify nouns in a way that describes an attribute of the noun.

Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs in a way that describes a relation or degree of time, degree, manner, and similar qualities.


inflated balloon
(inflated is an attribute of the noun balloon, so inflated is an adjective -- technically, a past participle functioning as an adjective)

partially inflated balloon
(partially is a degree of inflated, so partially is an adverb modifying an adjective)

If you were to hyphenate that,
partially-inflated balloon,
you would be wrong.

This is considered an "exception" to the rule regarding hyphenation of compound adjectives, but that's something of a misnomer. This could never be a compound adjective because it's half-adjective, half-adverb. A similar "exception" involves whether to hyphenate a preposition used as an adverb, such as:

Please check out at the check-out counter.

The first "out" is an adverb modifying the verb "check." The second "out" is part of a compound adjective modifying "counter."

One place where the rule is in flux regards the use of comparative or superlative compounds. The old rule is that you never hyphenate a comparative or superlative adverb modifying an adjective. This is probably easiest to see if we stick to good/well, better, best as our example because that will ignore the -ly comparatives and superlatives.

better built car
best dressed woman
well read man
a good, simple dinner
(good is an adjective modifying a noun)
a well prepared dinner (well is an adverb modifying an adjective)
the best cooked dinner (best is a superlative modifying an adjectival past participle)

That's the old rule. Lately, we've seen people hyphenating these usages, but to my eye, it looks strange. Maybe this is because my eye knows the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and my eye knows that you don't hyphenate an adverb to an adjective, but whatever. Rules change.

What are compound adjectives? When two adjectives operate together as a unit to modify a noun. For example,

long-term solution

Solution is the noun. Long and term operate together to create a single unit of meaning. This isn't an arbitrary rule because it can have an impact on meaning. Compare:

The large appliance factory is closing.
The large-appliance factory is closing.

In the first, an appliance factory which is large is closing.
In the second, a factory which makes large appliances is closing.

Okay, so, that probably doesn't un-confuse anybody. As I said, this is not an easy concept to grasp, and even seasoned copy editors sometimes quibble over particulars, especially in the case of squinting modifiers (see link at the top of this post). But I thought it was worth at least trying to un-confuse things. :)



Anonymous said...

Ack! *rushing back to check entire manuscript"

(I would have hyphenated partially inflated!!!!)

Rachael Herron said...

Whoa. I have read this four times, and I'm sure I'll forget some of it, but I did not know this. Thank you!!

Kristen Stieffel said...

This business of hyphenating compounds of the form (adverb not ending in ly) + (adjective) has several subtleties. Chicago Manual of Style says they are "hyphenated before but not after a noun," and superlatives are "usually open unless ambiguity threatens." Well, any rule with "usually" in it is bound to cause some trouble.

For example: "the most skilled workers (most in number), but the most-skilled workers (most in skill)." I imagine writers see things like "most-skilled" in other people's writing and absorb the hyphenated form subconsciously, overlooking the usually/unless bit.

Also, "When the adverb rather than the compound as a whole is modified by another adverb, the entire expression is open." Examples: "a much-needed addition" but "a very much needed addition."

Whew. Is it any wonder writers get confused?

The chart in CMOS section 7.85 does a great job of showing when and when not to hyphenate. Not that every writer needs to memorize CMOS. That's what copy editors are for. ;)

Edittorrent said...

Right, Kristen, and I agree, except that I'm hesitant to rely on Chicago for non-academic writing. Some fictive conventions vary from Chicago, but I think it's a safe source for hyphen rules.