3 Types of Problems with Complex Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, an error pertaining to hyphenation results in a faulty phrasal adjective. Discussion and revision explain and demonstrate how to solve the problem.

1. The company appeared to violate federal law by offering high-interest rate loans in states where such loans are prohibited.

This sentence describes rate loans of a high-interest nature, but that’s not the intent of the statement. The phrase “high interest rate” serves as a phrasal adjective describing the type of loans in question, so those three words should be hyphenated together: “The company appeared to violate federal law by offering high-interest-rate loans in states where such loans are prohibited.” Alternatively, the sentence can be relaxed: “The company appeared to violate federal law by offering loans at high interest rates in states where such loans are prohibited.” (Note that no hyphenation occurs in “high interest rates” because here, high and interest do not modify rates; rather, high modifies “interest rates.”

2. A robust “think outside the box” process is needed to establish and sustain this vital dialogue between management and the board.

The writer has enclosed “think outside the box” in scare quotes, apparently on the assumption that the phrase is an obscure idiom that needs to be emphasized as such, but it is familiar to the point of cliché and therefore doesn’t merit any special treatment. But in this sentence, it is a phrasal adjective, so the four words should be linked with hyphens: “A robust think-outside-the-box process is needed to establish and sustain this vital dialogue between management and the board.” (If scare quotes were merited, the marks would serve to visually unify the phrasal adjective, so hyphenation would be redundant.)

3. Production environment access management controls can often be improved by providing user access based on role and title.

It is technically correct to hyphenate the noun-cum-adjective stack that begins this sentence, but such a laboriously extended phrasal adjective is clumsy. Simplify such a construction by altering the syntax with insertion of prepositions, as in the first example above: “Controls for access management in the production environment can often be improved by providing user access based on role and title.”

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