3 Common Types of Phrasal-Adjective Hyphenation Errors

By Mark Nichol

One of the most ubiquitous categories of error in written composition is failure to provide a visual clue to readers that two or more words preceding a noun are temporarily functioning as a single unit of information. After each of the sentences below, a discussion explains one of several types of such mistakes, and revisions demonstrate correct usage.

1. This new work will represent one of the highest profile projects.

The basic phrasal adjective consist of two words combined to modify a noun, and the basic error in the use of phrasal adjectives is to omit a hyphen, which is often (but not always) necessary: “This new work will represent one of the highest-profile projects.” (Exceptions include terms listed in the dictionary as open permanent compounds, such as “income tax.”)

2. The agency recommends removal of the four-business day limit.

Another type of hyphenation error with phrasal adjectives is hyphenating only the first and second words in a three-word string that modifies a noun. Here, the sentence is revised to reflect that the reference is to a limit of four business days, not a day limit of four businesses: “The agency recommends removal of the four-business-day limit.”

3. This guide includes a special supplement on the first of its kind regulation requiring certification and screening programs.

Errors also occur when a writer fails to acknowledge that an entire phrase—which, like other phrasal adjectives, needs no hyphenation in isolation (For example, in “This regulation is the first of its kind”)—requires the connective symbols in before-the-noun mode: “This guide includes a special supplement on the first-of-its-kind regulation requiring certification and screening programs.”

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