How to Treat Complex Phrasal Adjectives

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Numerous DailyWritingTips.com posts have addressed hyphenation of phrasal adjectives such as “long range” when they precede a noun, as in “long-range missile.” But what about when the phrasal adjective includes more than two words? As this post explains, it depends on the interrelationships of those words.

The simplest multiword phrasal adjective to construct is one in which a phrase such as “all or nothing” modifies a noun—simply hyphenate the string of words: “all-or-nothing ultimatum.” This rule holds true no matter how long the string is, though at a certain point, the writer or editor may decide that it is of a cumbersome length, in which case omitting hyphens and enclosing the string in quotation marks to suggest that the phrasal adjective is spoken will render it more readable, or recasting the sentence may improve clarity.

But what if two of the words are already an open or hyphenated compound—a standing phrase that appears in the dictionary as such—or is a proper noun? In either case, the solution is to replace the hyphens linking every word with an en dash (–) linking the compound to an additional word. (An en dash is a symbol usually seen in number ranges, as in “The room accommodates 25–50 people depending on seating arrangement” or “Jones lived 1911–1987.”)

This usage is clear when employed with proper nouns, as in “San Francisco­–based company” (as opposed to the absurd alternative “San-Francisco-based company”), where based obviously relates to “San Francisco,” not just Francisco, but it is also used in such constructions as “open standards–based solutions,” where “open standards” is a well-known phrase.

The risk in such usage is that readers will not recognize that the en dash is distinct from a hyphen and will (mis)understand the phrase to mean “standards-based solutions that are open.” This risk is exacerbated by the fact that the Associated Press Style Book, in its sometimes-misguided quest to simplify symbols, calls for a hyphen rather than an en dash in phrases like this, which could lead to such confusion.

Another option is to use the hyphen-string approach in such phrases as “think-tank-inspired policies” (instead of “think tank–inspired policies”) or “soft-drink-soaked shirt” (rather than “soft drink–soaked shirt”), but better yet, try the more relaxed syntax presented, for example, in “policies inspired by think tanks” and “shirt soaked with a soft drink.”

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5 thoughts on “How to Treat Complex Phrasal Adjectives”

  1. Well, this explains a lot. I wondered why so many writers couldn’t bother to insert a few hyphens as needed. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

  2. Thanks for following up on this, Mark! Having trained as a journalist and thus using the AP Stylebook, I was not aware of the magic of the en dash. I am now!

  3. I think that you have the best solution for “Complex Phrasal Adjectives”: to dispose of them; to dispense with them. Start using subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases again! Use some intelligence and skill with the language!
    When it comes to “Complex Phrasal Adjectives”, the skilled writers of the past did not use them:
    Asimov, Churchill, Clarke, Franklin, Hemingway, Irving, Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Kipling, Lincoln, Longfellow, Madison, O’Neill, Paine, Russell, Sagan, Shaw, Steinbeck, Twain, Verne, Wells…

  4. Brett:
    I’ve given “think tank” the treatment above because it is a standing phrase (enshrined as such in dictionaries) and thus on its own is not hyphenated before a noun; there is little risk of reading “think tank policies” as “tank policies of a think nature.”

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