Friday, March 5, 2010

Quick Tip for Hyphens and Adjectives

This just came up in correspondence with an author, and I thought I would share it here.

There's a quick and dirty test for knowing whether you need to hyphenate adjectives. Let's say, for example, you're pondering the phrase,

mind blowing images

and debating the hyphen between mind and blowing. In order to decide, just split apart the pieces and see if it still makes sense:

mind images
blowing images

Er, not so much. You really need to link mind and blowing because these two words form one conceptual unit, so you need a hyphen. Contrast this with,

tall cold beer

which can be split into

tall beer
cold beer

and still make sense. In that case, no hyphen is needed.

This isn't an all-purpose rule. There are exceptions, such as

beautifully made gown

because the -ly adverb used in this compound way never requires a hyphen. And then there are borderline cases, such as

ruby red gown

in which ruby modifies red, but can also be said to modify gown. These are sometimes called squinting modifiers -- modifiers which can be read to modify two different pieces -- and are held by purists to be evidence of imprecise writing. If you want to eliminate the squint, hyphenate ruby and red. Alternately, choose either ruby or red to modify gown. But, honestly, this is one of those areas of style and grammar in which reasonable minds can differ. You might choose one method and find that your copy editor changes it on you.



Stacy McKitrick said...

I appreciate these little bursts of knowledge. They tend to stick to my brain better.

I had wondered about when to hyphen. Thanks for clearing that up!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

You are brilliant!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Terrific tips! Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

"squinting modifiers" is as good as an acronym for me. It sparks an image in my head of a university professor peering through her reading glasses at a pile of papers, a red pen in her hand. Love it!

Another great post to bookmark. Thanks, Theresa :)

Jami Gold said...

I think I've done it this way intuitively before, but it's great to have it spelled out so I have a way to check my imperfect intuition.

Jami G.

Theresa Milstein said...

I guess I never quite understood the rule. Thanks for enlightening me.

Liz Flaherty said...

Thanks! I had never read/heard/osmosed that first rule and it answers so many questions!

Anonymous said...

This just happened in a rewrite and I thought of this trick and it worked so i put in a hyphen.

My only problem is that now I have this trick in my head during rewrites, what trick have I now forgotten?

Adrian said...

Your "tall cold beer" example is interesting. I was taught that pairs like this require a comma ("tall, cold beer") for pretty much the same reason that they don't require a hyphen. Am I relying on an outdated rule?

Edittorrent said...

Adrian, I would probably put a comma there, but I left it out because we were looking at unpunctuated clusters for this exercise.


Regina Richards said...

Very helpful. Thanks.