Hyphens Are Chains Linking Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Writers frequently neglect to connect two words that together constitute a single grammatical unit modifying a noun that follows them. This error of omission is even more likely when the phrasal adjective consists of more than two words. The following sentences demonstrate such errors, and a discussion and a revision follow each example.

1. Leaders should be demanding reports that provide relevant stakeholders with near real time information.

The phrase “near real time” consists of three terms that combined to describe a type of information, so the phrase should be linked with hyphens: “Leaders should be demanding reports that provide relevant stakeholders with near-real-time information.”

2. He found himself immersed in an in the trenches position.

The position is in the trenches, so those last three words must be hyphenated when preceding the noun: “He found himself immersed in an in-the-trenches position.”

3. The student had a six-month long affair with his English teacher.

Here, the phrasal adjective is incompletely hyphenated, leaving the reader with the impression that a long affair was of a six-month nature. But long is part of the phrasal adjective: “The student had a six-month-long affair with his English teacher.”

4. Police investigated the much talked about incident.

When much precedes an adjective such as needed and the two words precede a noun, much is connected to the next word with a hyphen. The same rule applies when much intensifies an existing phrasal adjective such as “talked about”: “Police investigated the much-talked-about incident.”

5. Next, the firm undergoes a revenue recognition transition process.

Here, the number of words in the phrasal adjective is the same as the number in each of the preceding examples, but the use of jargon makes the phrasing more dense. The sentence can be corrected to “Next, the firm undergoes a revenue-recognition-transition process,” but in this case, is better to relax the sentence by starting with the noun and progressing from there: “Next, the firm undergoes a process of transitioning revenue recognition.” (Take care, however, that the correct meaning of the terminology is preserved in the revision.)

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6 Responses to “Hyphens Are Chains Linking Phrasal Adjectives”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sentences with hyphenated phrasal adjectives can usually be rephrased without them, practically at the snap of the fingers!
    “He found himself immersed in an in-the-trenches position,” quickly becomes “He found himself immersed in a position in the trenches.”
    OR: “He found himself immersed in a position like a soldier in the trenches.” OR: “He found himself immersed in a position like a sailor in the bilges.”
    That is quite a place to be immersed: in the bilges of a ship, and especially bilges that the sailors have been using as a “latrine”. (Sorry, but that is Army, Air Force, and Marine talk.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    I clearly did not go to the best schools when I was young – being a boy from a poor southern state – and I agree how useful hyphenated phrasal adjectives are. They clarify meanings very well, and I like them a lot. The big “but” is that no schoolteacher, instructor, or professor EVER mentioned “phrasal adjectives” and hyphenating them. This was an always-left-out subject! I really mean it: no teacher in elementary school, junior high school, high school, or even in Freshman English in college ever mentioned the subject. I was also very a widely read boy and young man, especially thanks to the public libraries in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and my college libraries**.
    Somehow in all that reading, I was oblivious to phrasal adjectives and the hyphenation thereof. On the other hand, in my reading and at school, I was always aware of the use of prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses, plus infinitive clauses and participial phrases/clauses. These things were emphasized in English courses in school, and of course I had my mother the English teacher to help out.
    I lived among a lot of the salt-of-the-earth kind of people, but I really can’t remember see phrases like “salt-of-the-earth”. WE did use predicate adjectives a lot, and in predicate adjectives, the hyphenation is not necessary. “Jack Ryan’s type to definitely salt of the earth.”

    The only thing time such a thing was mentioned was in sophomore German classes in college. These things are not used in everyday German, but in German literature the bigwig writers use adjectival phrases/clauses that are ten to 20 words long! They start some sentences with adjectivals that are that long before the subject and the verb finally make their appearance. Also in German, with the exceptions of questions, imperatives, and a few other things, the primary verb in a sentence always comes in the #2 position. If element “Q” begins the sentence, it is always followed by the main verb, and then “Q” can be the subject, an adverb, an extended adjectival phrase, a subordinate clause, one or more prepositional phrases, etc. If “Q” is not the subject, then the subject of the sentence takes the #3 position. It is as if we wrote on English: “Sometime tomorrow” (element #1), will ride (#2), I (#3), my bicycle (#4, the direct object), to mother’s house (#5), an adverbial prepositional phrase.
    In nearly all cases, English gave up this construction from Anglo-Saxon-Jute a long , long time ago. We settled on the usual sentence structure of Subject – Verb – Direct Object, with the possibility of an indirect object and various adverbs, prepositional phrases, and subordinate clauses.

    **I also saved my nickels and dimes, and my allowance money, and the money that I could earn by mowing lawns and washing cars for buying paperback books and magazines at the discount stores. Also, money that I received from my grandparents, aunts, and uncles was well-spent on reading material.

  • Mark Nichol


    True and false: In discussions of adverbial phrases that modify a noun, the following distinction is sometimes ignored: Adverbs ending in -ly are never hyphenated in such phrases, because the suffix signals that the adverb modifies the next word, not the noun, so a hyphen would be redundant. Adverbs with no such suffix, however, should be hyphenated, as in “nowhere-else conversations.”

  • Mark Nichol


    Em dashes (—) are never used in phrasal adjectives. En dashes (–) are employed when open compounds are part of the phrasal adjective, as in “Civil War–era artifacts” or “Los Angeles–to–San Francisco train.”

  • Bridgette

    Hey there,

    True or false: If an adverb is a part of the phrasal adjective, it does not need a hyphen to connect it. For example “She was a highly motivated student.” (no hyphen for “highly motivated” since “highly” is an adverb.)
    Assuming it’s true, how would you approach the phrasal adjective in this sentence: “We’re having nowhere else conversations in this confidential community.”
    I know “else” is an adverb, but to modify “conversations” does “nowhere-else” need a hyphen?


  • Steve

    Mark –

    Thanks! Isn’t there something about em vs. en dashes in these chains?


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