Monday, April 28, 2008

Compound adjectives: No-one knows how to use them and fewer still even care. Mostly because discussing them involves strange and terrifyingly polysyllabic words like "coordinate modifiers" and "hyphenized ambiguity."

But it's an easy topic to understand, regardless of usefulness.

Compound adjectives are a combination of words that modify a noun. This is opposed to, say, multiple adjectives that each modify a noun. For example, in the phrase, "She exuded a quiet, pleasing grace," "quiet" and "pleasing" each modify "grace"; for whatever ridiculous reason, we would call "quiet" and "pleasing" coordinate modifiers.

Now say we altered the phrase slightly: "She exuded a quite-pleasing grace." Here two words are combined to form a single modifier, "quite-pleasing." Separately the two would not make sense, which is perhaps why this is known as a noncoordinating modifier.

This may seem excessively pedantic, but ignoring it can be especially embarrassing. For example, when the film Eight Legged Freaks was released, Roger Ebert correctly chided the studio for omitting the very necessary hyphen between "eight" and "legged"; without it, he pointed out, the title was not describing the film's eight-legged spiders, rather eight freaks with legs, seven of which don't even appear in the movie (we surmise that David Arquette makes one).

There's a perverse number of exceptions to this rule, many of which we'll cover in subsequent posts, but a good rule for remembering to hyphenate your compound adjectives is to ask yourself whether both adjectives modify the noun. Is that virgin 40 and old and years?