How to Test for Hyphenation in Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

One of the most frequent style errors among writers is the omission of one or more hyphens in a phrasal adjective, a phrase consisting of two or more words linked to show that they’re teaming up to modify a noun that follows them. There’s an easy test to help you see that the hyphen is necessary.

When you write a phrase consisting of a noun preceded by two words describing the noun, confirm that the first and second word together modify the third, rather than that the second and third words constitute a compound noun modified by the first word. In the following sentence, for example, the latter holds true: “Indeed, the agency grants authority for community prevention efforts.” Here, “prevention efforts” is an open compound noun modified by community — the sentence does not refer to efforts to prevent community — so no hyphen is required.

Also, note that not every phrasal adjective requires a hyphen. Many open compound nouns (for example, “high school,” “income tax,” and “real estate”) are so well established that they appear in dictionaries as terms in their own right and do not require hyphenation when they are converted into adjectives to modify a noun (for example, “high school student,” “income tax form,” and “real estate agent”).

In a given sentence with a modified noun, ask yourself what kind of thing is being described, then hyphenate accordingly:

1. “This foundation has a feel good name.”
What kind of a name does it have? One designed to make you feel good, not a good name that feels. So, it’s a feel-good name: “This foundation has a feel-good name.”

2. “The small Victorian beach town lifted a decades old ban.”
What kind of a ban is it? One that has lasted for decades, not an old ban that is decades. So, it’s a decades-old ban: “The small Victorian beach town lifted a decades-old ban.”

3. “A truck and a car collided, triggering a seven vehicle crash.”
What kind of crash was it? One involving seven vehicles, not a vehicle crash that is seven. So, it’s a seven-vehicle crash: “A truck and a car collided, triggering a seven-vehicle crash.”

4. “It’s the Bay Area’s fastest growing town.”
What kind of town is it? One that is growing faster than any other, not a growing town that’s fastest. So, it’s the fastest-growing town: “It’s the Bay Area’s fastest-growing town.”

5. “The bumps have been causing two hour delays.”
What kind of delays are they? Ones lasting two hours, not hour delays that are two. So, they’re two-hour delays: “The bumps have been causing two-hour delays.”

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6 Responses to “How to Test for Hyphenation in Phrasal Adjectives”

  • johnesh

    You missed out the hyphen in the last one

  • Frank Harvey

    Hi all,

    This is my third attempt to contribute to a thread on this website. The spam filter software employed here saw fit to cast, my previous two, down into the pit of eternal doom. So here’s hoping for a bit of third time lucky..!

    If I get through I will try to come up with more interesting posts.

    Cheers
    A Newby

  • Danny

    From an educational point of view, it would be helpful to see some non-examples: cases where the adjective is NOT needed. All in all, this is a great tip, and I know it will help me a lot!

  • No_imaginative_nickname

    Next you can address phrases that go beyond two words, such as one I see on news sites frequently: “…non-life threatening injuries.” (Who cares if any of the undead were injured?)

  • Andrei

    Was that irony, or did you miss the hyphen in the last example? Nice post! Hyphenation is important, and sometimes, I find myself struggling with it.

  • Sally

    LOL @ N_I_N

    You wouldn’t happen to be a fellow role-playing gamer, by any chance?

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