Hyphenation of Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Hyphens have been erroneously omitted from phrasal adjectives in the following three examples, each of which is followed by an explanation of the error and a corrected version of the sentence.

1. Three of those assembly members face a tough reelection in a Republican heavy district or represent the economically hard hit Central Valley.

A lack of hyphenation in the phrase “Republican heavy district” prompts the reading “a heavy district inhabited by Republicans,” but the phrase means “a district populated mostly by Republicans,” so the phrase “Republican heavy,” as a phrasal adjective modifying district, should be hyphenated; the same rule applies for the final phrase: “Three of those assembly members face a tough reelection in a Republican-heavy district or represent the economically hard-hit Central Valley.”

2. The objective is to enhance focus and character work on a scene to scene basis.

The phrase “scene to scene” modifies basis, so it should be hyphenated: “The objective is to enhance focus and character work on a scene-to-scene basis.” (However, just as one would write “a district heavy in Republicans” or “the Central Valley was hard hit,” the phrasal adjective should not be hyphenated when it follows the noun, as in “we worked on the script scene to scene” (or, better, “scene by scene”).

3. A weary customer said, “This is a serious shop until you drop situation, and I am dropping.”

What kind of a situation is it? One in which the customer shops until he or she drops. The idiomatic phrase “shop until you drop” is a phrasal adjective modifying situation, so it should be hyphenated: “A weary customer said, ‘This is a serious shop-until-you-drop situation, and I am dropping.’” If that train of four hyphenated words seems too cumbersome, enclose it in single quotation marks: “This is a serious ‘shop until you drop’ situation, and I am dropping.”

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2 Responses to “Hyphenation of Phrasal Adjectives”

  • Thebluebird11

    I was wondering if the customer was weary because it was a serious shop!

  • Anne-Marie

    Thebluebird11, that’s how I read it too. I had to get beyond that part to see the phrase. It is obvious to see why it needs hyphens or single quotes.

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