Our modifiers are compounded daily

Researching this topic, compound modifiers, I ran across the truest sentence I have read about style, grammar and usage. It’s from one of my favorite books, “The Gregg Reference Manual” by William A. Sabin (published by McGraw-Hill Irwin). In an appendix of the 10th edition titled “Essays on the Nature of Style,” Sabin writes, “It does no good to pretend that compound adjectives are an easy thing to master. They aren’t.” Amen to that, Mr. Sabin.

A compound modifier is different from a series of adjectives in front of a noun. A compound adjective is a combination of two or more words that conveys a single thought. A long, hard winter is both long and hard, so you need a comma between the two adjectives. A long-expected appointment is one that has been expected for a long time; it is not long and expected.

Here is a sentence, pointed out to me by a reader, that sent me looking for the rules: The News & Observer’s Target Smart program offers a high-impact, cost effective and flexible way to deliver your advertising message to consumers. Notice that “high-impact” is hyphenated, properly so, yet the writer did not hyphenate “cost effective,” which should be hyphenated.

I have trouble with the rules for hyphenating compound adjectives. I think of myself as hyphen-conservative. I might be just the person Sabin is lamenting in his essay (one of those who wish the whole hyphen thing would just go away). However, after reading his words, I have resolved to do better.

In general, we hyphenate these word combinations before a noun, and we don’t hyphenate them after a noun or if they show up elsewhere in the sentence. The well-known author of mysteries spoke at a bookstore in Chapel Hill. The author who spoke at a bookstore in Chapel Hill has become well known for his mysteries.

Just to add to confusion over this: The Associated Press Stylebook says that the hyphen in “well-known” should be retained if it follows a form of the verb to be, as in The author is well-known. Sabin tackles this issue, explaining that we need to keep the hyphen if the words continue to function as a “one-thought modifier.” However, if the words become part of the verb, then we drop the hyphen. In my example above, the author has become known for his mysteries and we are qualifying that with “well.” It’s enough make your hair hurt.

Here are some examples of hyphenated compound modifiers:* The high-ranking government official told the reporter about the president’s last-minute decision. The official is not high and ranking (I felt compelled to make that joke) and the decision is not last and minute.* A four-color brochure costs much more to print than a black-and-white one.* The fast-growing company operates a high-tech call center.* The small-business center tries to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs fulfill their dreams.

Sabin points out that some combinations are so well understood that they don’t need hyphens: real estate agent, high school student, life insurance policy. (His explicit acceptance of “high school” particularly heartens me; I’ve been taking the hyphen out of such constructions for years. Yes, yes, I know, the student is not “high.”)

Sabin’s book explains the various rules of compound adjectives and its subset, compound nouns, plus all the versions of each, in a 16-page section. That’s right: 16 pages! Lucky for me, Sabin’s book sits on my desk most of the time. I need to consult it often.

If you are interested, here is the publisher’s information about “The Gregg Reference Manual.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.