True Phrasal Adjectives and Imposters

By Mark Nichol

Phrasal adjectives, the sets of words that combine to modify a noun, can be tricky. Usually, words in phrasal adjectives are hyphenated to signal their interrelationship, but there are exceptions, and confusion often arises when phrases resemble but do not constitute phrasal adjectives.

In English grammar, the assumption is that two adjacent nouns constitute a description of a single entity unless the first noun is hyphenated to a preceding adjective to form a phrasal adjective. For example, in “They earned their third straight regular season victory that day,” the reference appears to be to a season victory that is regular. Attaching the adjective regular to the noun season with a hyphen clarifies that the reference is to a victory that pertains to the regular season: “They earned their third straight regular-season victory that day.”

Why not hyphenate “third straight” as well? The phrase modifies “regular-season victory,” but “third straight” is not a phrasal adjective; the noun is the phrase “straight victory,” and third modifies the entire phrase (not just straight), which in turn modifies “regular-season victory.”

To see why this is so, replace the entire phrase — “third straight regular-season victory” — with any phrase beginning with an ordinal number followed by an adjective and then a noun (a phrasal adjective in place of “regular-season” is irrelevant): “first full sentence,” “second tall man,” and so on; no hyphenation is called for. The full sentence is the first one, and the tall man is the second one.

But isn’t this the same type of construction as seen in “The team achieved the third-highest score in the franchise’s history,” in which “third-highest” is correctly hyphenated because it modifies score? No. “Third highest score” refers to the third in a series of highest scores, but that’s not what this sentence is referring to; the reference is to a score that is third highest.

Also, in “The win snapped their opponents’ sixteen-game home winning streak,” “sixteen-game” correctly modifies “home winning streak.” But why isn’t “home winning” itself hyphenated to indicate that it’s a phrasal adjective modifying streak? Because it’s not a phrasal adjective. The modifier in this sentence is home, modifying the noun phrase “winning streak.”

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3 Responses to “True Phrasal Adjectives and Imposters”

  • Matt Gaffney

    This article underscores the need for good writers to identify and use compound adjectives (my preferred term) in order to preclude ambiguity. Casual writers would do well to take this article to heart.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “They earned their third straight regular-season victory that day.”

    Many people simply will not get it that “regular-season” should be hyphenated, or why. The worst of these are those who do not know what these words mean: {noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, conjunction, preposition…}. Apparently, students in elementary school are NOT “nailed to the wall” anymore if they do not learn these.

    Also, when we explain that the concepts of noun, verb, adjective, et cetera, were developed by the scholars of Ancient Greece, the students’ response now is “Duhh, Ancient Greece?”

    There are even people nowadays who have the notion that there is something ethnocentric (?) about referring to the intellectual developments of the Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and the peoples of the Indus River Valley (located in what is now Pakistan and India). Besides in languages, the latter made many advances in mathematics, as did the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In arithmetic, the Indians developed the vital concept of zero, and in higher math, the Indians did more to produce trigonometry than anyone else did.

    When I taught communication systems and signal processing at a technical college in Maryland, I got the reputation of “the professor with all of the trigonometry”. Well, I know that one cannot truly understand or explain these subjects w/o a lot of trigonometry, so I told my students that they might as well dig into it – and not try to brush over it.

  • Dale A. Wood

    One of the European masters of the appliction of trignometry to mathematical analysis was the French mathematician Joseph FOURIER – who also served as a civil servant under Napoleon Bonaparte.
    Fourier created a form of mathematics that is simply called Fourier Analysis in his honor. Then, over a century later, Fourier Analysis was found to be of vital use in electronic systems. Fourier published his most important book in 1820 – back when the use of electricity was practically unknown.

    Fourier spoke at the funeral of the French mathematican Paul Mongue in 1827, but before too many more years, Fourier met his own odd fate. He was a well-to-do man, and in 1830 he was in his own mansion when he fell down a flight of stairs.
    Fourier was injured very badly, but his servants took care of him as best they could. Then within 10 days of his fall, Fourier died from his injuries.

    I have persistent problems with my balance, and every time I arrive at the top of a flight of stairs, I think of Fourier and what happened to him. Egad!
    D.A.W.

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