A Quiz About Hyphenating Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

One of the most frequent mechanical errors in writing is the omission or misuse of hyphens when two or more words are used to modify a following noun. In the sentences below, remedy the absence or abuse of hyphens in the phrasal adjective and compare your revision to mine:

1. “He’s one of the world’s best known zoologists.”

As is, the sentence implies that among known zoologists, he’s one of the best. But what it means is that among the world’s zoologists, he one of the best known, so that two-word phrase is a phrasal adjective and should be hyphenated before the noun zoologists: “He’s one of the world’s best-known zoologists.”

2. “The increasingly high on its own supply movie studio has once more delved into its library.”

This sentence suffers from the same error as the previous one, multiplied several times. The words in the phrase “high on its own supply” must be linked like railroad cars for the statement to make sense: “The increasingly high-on-its-own-supply movie studio has once more delved into its library.” (Increasingly, because it is an adverb, not an adjective, doesn’t have a ticket for this train.)

3. “A lot can happen during a three or four day holiday weekend.”

Again, a lack of connective tissue is the fault here; the solution is suspensive hyphenation. The object refers to a holiday weekend that might last three days or four days, but it’s not necessary to repeat day. It is, however, imperative to hyphenate such a construction as follows: “A lot can happen during a three- or four-day holiday weekend.”

4. “Whatever happened to the catalogs of yore, like the four-inch thick Sears tome?”

Incomplete hyphenation muddles this sentence, which implies that an artifact known as a thick Sears tome has four inches. The intended meaning, however, is that the Sears tome is four inches thick, so that three-word phrase describing its size must be linked into one unit: “Whatever happened to the catalogs of yore, like the four-inch-thick Sears tome?”

5. “Behind-the-scenes, he repeatedly employed procedural technicalities to undermine proposals.”

Freestanding common phrases that are also often employed as phrasal adjectives and thus frequently seen with hyphens are often mistakenly hyphenated; the first three words in this sentence, however, require hyphens only if they collectively modify a noun (“behind-the-scenes plotting”): “Behind the scenes, he repeatedly employed procedural technicalities to undermine proposals.”

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9 Responses to “A Quiz About Hyphenating Phrasal Adjectives”

  • Steve M

    Great article! Clears up some concerns I had about hyphenation, especially the “three-and four-day holiday” explanation.

  • Demosthenes

    I agree with Steve M that this cleared up alot (as my students write). However, in many cases, the best solution is to start over, and rephrase the whole thing. Something to think about this weekend (week-end, week end).

  • Charles B. Cameron

    It was a relief to read your article and see that you get it! Not many people do, it would appear.

  • Charles B. Cameron

    Incidentally, what does the phrase “high on its own supply” even mean?

  • Mark Nichol

    Charles:

    “High on its own supply” refers to a certain movie studio’s habit of falling back on familiar formulas and past successes.

  • Jen McGahan

    Almost tripped me up on #3, but I’m an experienced “hyphenator!” (Or would you say “hyphen-ator?”…”hyphenate-or?” What do you say? Thanks!

  • Ken K

    I did well. … Thanks.

  • Janey

    Enlightening. Thanks!

  • DanH

    Why is it that “most frequent” (used in 1st sentence of this article) is not classed as a phrasal adjective but “best-known” is? Both modify the nouns that follow them.

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