Wick Communications

80-year-old man eating shark

In Writing on 9 Dec 2010 at 3:05 pm

I may have used this space to whine about compound modifiers before, and if I have, forgive me. It’s sort of a pet peeve.

I thought about them again this week when reading Catherine Osborn’s post on “Daily Writing Tips.” Compound modifiers are adverbial phrases that modify a noun. Conventional practice calls for hyphens to be placed between the words of the compound modifier when they precede a noun. You don’t have to be a high-school English teacher (hey, there’s a compound modifier right there) to get this right. Basically, you know them when your ear hears them. Some examples:

  • White-hot metal
  • 80-year-old man
  • man-eating shark.

That last one is commonly used to show what can happen if you mess up the compound modifier. Obviously there is a big difference between a “man-eating shark” and a “man eating shark.” One is dangerous… the other sitting down to dinner.

Osborn argues for some leniency for transgressors. She notes the “grotesqueries” that come with multiple-word modifiers (another one!) at the end of a line of type, for instance. And she is correct when she says that most readers are going to know what you mean even if you leave the hyphen out because the context points readers in the right direction. I guess that’s true, but you want to walk along with your readers, not merely give them a point and a shove. Help them…

Too often our writers simply guess. They know – or they think they know — that a hyphen or two belongs in a phrase like “80-year-old man.” So they throw them in as if they were playing darts at the pub. If you get nothing else out of this post, if the entire concept of compound modifiers continues to elude you, please remember that the next 80-year-old man you encounter deserves nothing less than hyphens between the numeral and “year,” and between “year” and “old.”



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