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Thread: Compound Adjectives

  1. #1

    Compound Adjectives

    They're something you've seen dozens of times, but the reality is that even published authors get compound adjectives wrong from time to time. The following sentence should give you a clue about what I'm referring to:

    The derelict red-brick building on the side of the road appeared to be empty. Six rifle-toting guards, however, patrolled the inner corridors in search of intruders. They were beginning an eight-week stint of security, at the end of which the place would be bustling with scientists of all ages and races. The highly trained guards, former military soldiers who had been dishonourably discharged, would eventually become permanent fixtures at the building.

    A compound adjective is two words conjoined by a hyphen. By themselves, the two words don't make sense. When joined with a hyphen, however, they act on each other and take on a new meaning. Take, for instance, the first one. If that sentence began, "The derelict red brick building", it would be describing a building that was both painted red and made from brick. That's not what it describes. I wish to convey that the bricks are red, not the building. To do so, I insert a hyphen. This tells my reader that the building is made from red bricks.

    "Rifle-toting". The word 'tote' is an informal way of saying that someone is carrying something. On its own -- "rifle toting" -- it reads as though the rifles were carrying the guards. With a hyphen, I'm establishing that all guards are carrying rifles. See how one omission can drastically alter the meaning of a piece? Once you learn that the two words are acting on each other to create, in theory, one complete word, figuring out their usage will become easy.

    "Eight-week". Again, another word that acts on the one that preceded it. "I'm going on a two week vacation". So, you're going on two separate vacations, both of which last a week? I don't believe you are. You're going on a 'two-week' vacation. The same applies for days: "I'm taking a five-day leave". Or, "I'm taking a five-month leave". Most people -- in general, employers -- won't be as pedantic as an editor will, so you can get away with this mistake in your letter of request for a paid sabbatical. When it comes to creative writing -- academic, even more so -- it's important to get it right.

    "Highly trained". Now we come to the problem that even published authors struggle with. Those two words are acting on each other; one modifies the other. That would dictate that they should be conjoined by a hyphen, wouldn't it? No. 'Highly' is an adverb. Adverbs are words that modify the next word in a sentence. "Stealthily moved", "skillfully created", etcetera. Putting a hyphen in is redundant and unnecessary. The confusion begins with something like this:

    The computers had a daily-changing password to prevent being hacked.

    Why is this different? Because 'daily' isn't an adverb. It's an adjective. Adjectives follow the above rule. Adverbs don't. That's where the confusion begins. Just consult your dictionary when making compound adjectives. If the word is an adverb, no hyphen.
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  2. #2
    Good stuff in general, but "daily" is very definitely an adverb. It's modifying a word that would be a verb if not for its position in the sentence.
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  3. #3
    Good one, Sam. Told a writer friend of mine, so she could come read it. Probably the nerdiest thing I've done in awhile. LOL

  4. #4
    Correction: The nerdiest thing you'll admit to doing in awhile, squidboy.

    Very informative article, though, Sam. It's one of those things that I've never really thought about--up until MS Word start autocorrecting me and deleting all my hyphens. (Pet Peeve #687) You're always full of useful tidbits of information. Perhaps I should pick your brain more? Thanks for sharing.
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  5. #5
    Needs a rethink in places.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sam W View Post
    They're something you've seen dozens of times, but the reality is that even published authors get compound adjectives wrong from time to time. The following sentence should give you a clue about what I'm referring to:

    The derelict red-brick building on the side of the road appeared to be empty. Six rifle-toting guards, however, patrolled the inner corridors in search of intruders. They were beginning an eight-week stint of security, at the end of which the place would be bustling with scientists of all ages and races. The highly trained guards, former military soldiers who had been dishonourably discharged, would eventually become permanent fixtures at the building.

    A compound adjective is two words conjoined by a hyphen. By themselves, the two words don't make sense. When joined with a hyphen, however, they act on each other and take on a new meaning. Take, for instance, the first one. If that sentence began, "The derelict red brick building", it would be describing a building that was both painted red and made from brick.[no, only that it's red and has an association with brick - paint is one way to make a building red, but it is not the only interpretation] That's not what it describes. I wish to convey that the bricks are red, not the building. To do so, I insert a hyphen. This tells my reader that the building is made from red bricks.

    "Rifle-toting". The word 'tote' is an informal way of saying that someone is carrying something. On its own -- "rifle toting" -- it reads as though the rifles were carrying the guards.[In context, it is "six rifle" - the number is an important modifier] With a hyphen, I'm establishing that all guards are carrying rifles. See how one omission can drastically alter the meaning of a piece? Once you learn that the two words are acting on each other to create, in theory, one complete word, figuring out their usage will become easy.

    "Eight-week". Again, another word that acts on the one that preceded it. "I'm going on a two week vacation". So, you're going on two separate vacations, both of which last a week? [again, the number is key - "a" ..."vacation" - the mis-interpretation is spurious; possibly if one said, "I'm going on two weeks' vacation", although the singular noun - vacation - would still add clarity.] I don't believe you are. You're going on a 'two-week' vacation. The same applies for days: "I'm taking a five-day leave". Or, "I'm taking a five-month leave". Most people -- in general, employers -- won't be as pedantic as an editor will, so you can get away with this mistake in your letter of request for a paid sabbatical. When it comes to creative writing -- academic, even more so -- it's important to get it right.

    "Highly trained". Now we come to the problem that even published authors struggle with. Those two words are acting on each other; one modifies the other. That would dictate that they should be conjoined by a hyphen, wouldn't it? No. 'Highly' is an adverb. Adverbs are words that modify the next word in a sentence. [Adverbs are words which modify verbs, and only verbs, regardless of relative placement] "Stealthily moved", "skillfully created", etcetera. Putting a hyphen in is redundant and unnecessary. The confusion begins with something like this:

    The computers had a daily-changing password to prevent being hacked.

    Why is this different? Because 'daily' isn't an adverb. [sorry; it is in this context - daily can be an adjective, an adverb or a noun - here it modifies changing, a verb] It's an adjective. Adjectives follow the above rule. Adverbs don't. That's where the confusion begins. Just consult your dictionary when making compound adjectives. If the word is an adverb, no hyphen.
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  6. #6
    I see Cran caught "a two week holiday" rather than "two weeks' holiday".

    These minor niggles caught me "military soldiers" (I suppose they might have been Christian soldiers), and, "Putting a hyphen in is redundant and unnecessary.", tautological; one of those words is redundant or unnecessary, but they are beside the valid point you are making. I sometimes wonder at what point the hyphen starts getting left out and who decides, I am pretty sure it is a 'Redbrick University' nowadays, it has never been now-a-days in my lifetime, but I bet it was because I can remember it being to-day when I was at school.
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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sam View Post
    "I'm going on a two week vacation". So, you're going on two separate vacations, both of which last a week? I don't believe you are. You're going on a 'two-week' vacation. The same applies for days: "I'm taking a five-day leave". Or, "I'm taking a five-month leave". Most people -- in general, employers -- won't be as pedantic as an editor will, so you can get away with this mistake in your letter of request for a paid sabbatical. When it comes to creative writing -- academic, even more so -- it's important to get it right.
    There's a word you're forgetting to include in your analysis. 'A'. The 'a' makes it clear that this is a single vacation, not multiple vacations.
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  8. #8
    I have always wondered about the proper usage of hyphens when it came to compound adjectives, and I'll say, that this cleared up a LOT of confusion.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Cran View Post
    Adverbs are words that modify the next word in a sentence. [Adverbs are words which modify verbs, and only verbs, regardless of relative placement]
    My 8th grade (or would it be 8th-grade?) English teacher would disagree. (Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, and consider the sentence "She walked slowly.")

    But more to the point, I don't remember my teacher talking about compound adjectives. Is this a fairly significant grammar error, like something an editor would catch? I don't believe I often see compound adjectives while reading, but I may not be looking closely enough.

    Also, I'm tempted to argue the semantics on each example you use because it's late and I like arguing, but I shouldn't. It seems like the hyphen could possibly, slightly clarify the meaning for some reader one day, but I have trouble imagining anyone reading the phrase "six rifle toting guards" and thinking of guards who carry six rifles each.

  10. #10
    You do see compound adjectives; you don't notice them. They're designed to remove ambiguity from sentences. For instance:

    A heavy metal detector.

    A heavy-metal detector.

    Two sentences and two completely different meanings. One might argue that the first sentence requires a comma after 'heavy', but since the words act on each other it isn't strictly necessary.

    They were three stone weaklings.

    They were three-stone weaklings.

    What's a 'stone weakling'? We're trying to convey that we had weaklings who weighed three stone, not that there are three people who are 'stone weaklings'.

    Your eighth-grade (yes, that's a compound adjective) English teacher won't be telling you about compound adjectives because they don't expect 14- or 15-year-olds to understand or ever use them correctly. It's an advanced writing technique that you'll use in further education.
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