Speaking of Compound Fractures…


April 3, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals

storeSorry. No gruesome video to watch here. And yes, that was a cheap hook.

But this is serious stuff. We’re talking about hyphens.

I’ve proofed hundreds of website pages written by lawyers, doctors, scientists, business people, and all-around experts in various and sundry fields and pursuits. And without hesitation, I can say that this is the most common mechanical error: the unhyphenated compound adjective.

North of Lansing on US 127 a sign reads New Wood Store. Every time I see it I wonder if people are confused. Is that a wood store that’s new? Or a store that sells new wood? I assume it’s the latter, but a hyphen would let me avoid the assumption. No confusion with New-Wood Store.

When a two-part adjective sits in front of the noun it modifies, the two need to be made into one. Look back at the last hundred words or so and you’ll find two examples: “all-around experts” and “two-part adjective.” The logic is simple. When two or more words are working together to create one modifier, and when those two words sit in the traditional spot right in front of the object word, they’re really acting as one modifier. We make them one by using a hyphen.

Here are a few examples from my novel Catastropolis:

stone-and-mortar wall

well-packed space

five-gallon pail

grown-up thoughts

almond-shaped eyes

These compound adjectives all precede the object word, but if they follow it, no hyphen is needed. The space was well packed. Her eyes were almond shaped. In this construction either the grammar changes (well becomes an adverb) or there’s no potential confusion in leaving out the hyphen.

Also, be careful with compound nouns as in this situation: red plum tree. Here we do not have a tree that is red-plum but a plum tree that is red. Know where the ideas of adjective and noun separate.

So don’t fracture your compounds. Keep them joined with a hyphen.

Think of it as a grammatical bone splint.

2 thoughts on “Speaking of Compound Fractures…

  1. Not knowing how or when to hyphenate compound adjectives is certainly a problem, but my years in the classroom (confirmed by statistics) convinced me that the biggest stumbling block is pronoun usage.

  2. bradcharlesbeals says:

    Good point, Barry. For my students (I’m a high-school English teacher), yes, pronoun usage is the single biggest issue. I agree with that. But for my educated clients, this one is more common.

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