Temporary and Permanent Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Use of phrasal adjectives, combinations of two or more words that as a grammatical unit provide additional details to nouns, is complicated by standards of usage pertaining to hyphens. This post discusses various types of phrasal adjectives (some of which have, since they were coined, been fused to form single words).

Just as there are three structural types of compound nouns (closed, as with hindsight, hyphenated, as with life-form, and open, as with “cell phone”), adjectives are also built in one of (the same) three ways.

Occasionally, when a phrasal adjective is formed, its original hyphenated form is superseded by a closed treatment, as with the simple adjective heartwarming, which started out as the phrasal adjective “heart warming.” How does one learn which phrasal adjectives have been fused? Consult a dictionary.

Hyphenated phrasal adjectives are further subdivided into two categories: temporary and permanent. Temporary phrasal adjectives are phrases consisting of an adjective and another form of speech, such as the adverb-adjective team of “well trained.” Note, however, that this instance of this phrasal adjective, though located in a discussion about hyphenation of such parts of speech, is not hyphenated. Why? Because most phrasal adjectives, those designated as temporary, are hyphenated only before a noun: “That is a well-trained dog,” but “That dog is well trained.”

Some phrasal adjectives are considered permanent; one example is “short-lived,” and though it should technically be hyphenated after a noun (as in “Their triumph was short-lived”), The Chicago Manual of Style recommends forgoing hyphenation in most such cases when no misreading is likely.

How is a writer to know which category a phrasal adjective belongs to? Consult a dictionary. Note, however, that some terms are not obvious. On Merriam-Webster’s website, “cutting edge” is designated as a noun, and the adjectival form appears as a footnote to the noun’s definition. But there it is: “cutting-edge.” That phrasal adjective, with a hyphen, is permanent—it’s in the dictionary—so hyphenate it before a noun, but again, per Chicago, it can be left open after the noun.

One form of phrasal adjective that usually needs no hyphenation is one beginning with an adverb ending in -ly, such as in “happily married couple.” But if the phrasal adjective is extended, as in “not-so-happily-married couple,” hyphenate it.

Finally, there’s the permanent open phrasal adjective, such as “information technology,” which never needs hyphenation (unless, again, it is extended, as in “information-technology-related discussion”). Why? Repeat after me: “It’s in the dictionary.” Note, too, that hyphenation is omitted in proper names used as phrasal adjectives, as in “Los Angeles freeways” and “the Sylvester Stallone school of acting,” though, again, if another word is included in the phrasal adjective, an exception is made. However, in this case, because two or more words constitute a single concept, an en dash used as a super-hyphen should link the proper name to the additional word: “Los Angeles–style traffic” and “Sylvester Stallone–lite acting.”

Another exception is for terms of art, or jargon that a particular publication or industry deems so well established that, in a specific context, no confusion is likely; therefore, “open source,” which is treated as a hyphenated permanent phrasal adjective in the dictionary, is often left open before or after a noun in technology-related content. (In general-circulation publications, however, it is generally hyphenated before a noun.)

A final caution: Various phrasal adjectives beginning with a common element are not necessary styled the same: A student in the first grade is a first-grade student, but firsthand is a closed compound, and “first person,” though treated as an open compound in the dictionary (like “cutting edge,” mentioned above), is listed as a noun, and when employed as a phrasal adjective, it should still be hyphenated before a noun.

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7 Responses to “Temporary and Permanent Phrasal Adjectives”

  • Mark Nichol

    Larry:
    You’re right, and the post has been corrected. Thanks!

  • Larry Sanguinetti

    Unless I’m misreading this, the last sentence of the fourth paragraph should read: “Because most phrasal adjectives, those designated as temporary, are hyphenated only BEFORE a noun: ‘That is a well-trained dog,’ but ‘That dog is well trained'” (emphasis mine).

  • Dale A. Wood

    Who were the “knights errant” told of in the tales of King Arthur?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Other examples of adjectives following their nouns in English. The use is idiomatic:
    Who was the “author unknown”?
    Jack the Ripper was the killer unknown.
    The informant unknown turned out to be Mark Felt. He was the man who had been “Deep Throat” all along.
    The criminal unknown was called the “Unabomber”. In the long run, he turned out to be Ted Kaczynski.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Kaczynski

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have often seen the word “lifeform” written in exactly this way, and as a matter-of-fact, my spellchecker accepts it. This is appropriate, given as many alien lifeforms as were encountered by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Lt. Sulu, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker. In fact, Han Solo was on the “shit list” of Jabba the Hut!
    The word “life” appears in many closed compounds:
    lifeform, lifeguard, lifelike, lifeless, lifeline, lifelong, lifemaker, lifestyle, lifetime, lifework, afterlife, antilife, highlife, lowlife, midlife, nonlife, nightlife, wildlife…
    and even birdlife, halflife. and prelife, though I prefer “avian life”, and “half-life” is often hyphenated. Various people will tell you of their “prelife experiences”, but I do not believe a word of it.
    Tales of one’s prelife experiences as Jack the Ripper or Lee Harvey Oswald are complete nonsense.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note: “Sylvester Stallone–lite acting.”
    If you are saying that Mr. Stallone’s acting is of the “lite” variety, I would have to agree. This is in contrast of the “heavy” variety of acting as shown by Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Bergman, and Liv Ullman.
    I decided to choose three Scandinavian actors because of a noteworthy interview with Mr. Von Sydow. Von Sydow said that he accepted the role as “King Osric” in “Conan the Barbarian” because he has been in a long run of quite heavy, serious films, and also for another reason. At that time, his teenage son was a huge fan of comic books, and especially the ones that told of adventures, swords, sorcery, evil villains, and heroes! What better place to see these than in “Conan the Barbarian”? Mr. Von Sydow’s son told him that he MUST take the role of King Osric (or any other one) in this movie!

  • Dale A. Wood

    “It can be left open after the noun,” is an unclear statement. In some cases, an adjective can be either before or after a noun. I will quote from Longfellow with one example, and then make up two of my own:
    I. “This is the forest primeval…”, from the epic poem “Evangeline”.
    II. Teddy Roosevelt went into the primeval forest of the Amazon to explore.
    III. The barren moonscape of northern Nevada and northwestern Utah can be a scary place to be.
    The first is a simple example of an adjective following its noun.
    The second and third are examples of the standard way of using an adjective in English, Dutch, or German – as a “attributive adjective”.
    The other way to use an adjective in these languages is as a “predicate adjective”:
    The land of northern Nevada and northwestern Utah is often as barren as a moonscape, and rather depressing. Note that the Bonneville Salt Flats and other wastelands are located there.
    There is a significant difference between a “predicate adjective” and an adjective that follows its noun immediately.

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