Using the Hyphen Correctly in Adjectival Phrases

This one might not appear to make sense at first, but with a few examples, it should. When you use a full phrase (as opposed to a single word) to describe something, that is called an adjectival phrase, because the whole thing works like an adjective. E.G. I made a decision. What type of decision? I made a spur-of-the-moment decision. Notice all those hyphens? That is because the adjectival phrases that go BEFORE the noun it describes need to be linked with hyphens. Notice, you would be correct in saying “My decision was spur of the moment”. When the description comes AFTER the noun it describes, you do not need hyphens because there is no way to misinterpret the sentence. In the following examples, try to explain the difference between the two nearly identical phrases that either have or do not have hyphens. I’ll give you an example to start: An iced-coffee machine is a machine that makes iced coffee. An iced coffee machine is a coffee machine that has been put in the freezer. I have no idea what ice coffee is, even though I see it advertised frequently. Oh, and now you know that the proper term is daylight-saving time, and not daylight savings time. So, what is the difference between…

A little used car and a little-used car?

A man eating chicken and a man-eating chicken?

Small-time crooks and small time crooks?

A well-fed daughter and a well fed daughter? (this one is trickier, but think it through) 

Twenty-three-year-old workers vs. twenty three-year-old workers vs. twenty-three year-old workers

Some authors take this rule to extreme lengths, with examples like: “She gave me one of those I-know-you-didn’t-just-say-what-I-thought-you-said kinds of looks”. What type of look? All of that nonsense that preceded it.

If you are confused, and you find yourself facing a whole list of adjectives describing something, don’t be scared. Ask yourself if the word “and” could be used between the adjectives. If so, then you don’t need a hyphen – the adjectives are a series of different descriptions. If you cannot insert “AND” between them, you have an adjectival phrase. For instance, ‘a wicked old cat’ has an invisible ‘and’ between wicked and old, if you mean that it is BOTH wicked AND old.  If, in true Bostonian fashion, you mean that the cat is extraordinarily old, then it is a ‘wicked-old cat’.

EXCEPTIONS! (As always, there are exceptions)

#1) NEVER use a hyphen following ‘very’. It is a very nice sweater, not a very-nice sweater.

#2) Do not use a hyphen to connect an adverb to the adjective that it describes. This is a greatly improved team, not a greatly-improved one. If you see –ly, LOSE THE HYPHEN…

#3) DO NOT use any hyphens to connect most, least or less to anything.
He is the most qualified candidate, not the most-qualified candidate.

(In fact, all three of these exceptions are really a part of the same rule – all of these exceptions are common mistakes where people connect adverbs to adjectives, which you should NOT do)

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