Phrasal adjectives

A phrasal adjective (also known as an adjective phrase or compound adjective) is a phrase that modifies a noun.

Phrasal adjective hyphenation

When a phrasal adjective precedes a noun, it usually takes a hyphen or, for phrases of three or more words, hyphens. This makes things easier for your reader and helps prevent miscues—for example:

razor-sharp wit

over-the-top characters

larger-than-life personality

The same phrases are unhyphenated when they come after what they modify—for example:

His wit was razor sharp.

The characters were over the top.

His personality was larger than life.

We make exceptions for phrasal adjectives beginning with -ly adverbs. These are conventionally unhyphenated—for example:

poorly run bank

closely held positions

When two closely related phrasal adjectives have similar ending elements, remove the ending element from the first phrase and leave the hyphen, like so:

the four- or five-year-old girl

Phrasal adjectives and units

When a phrasal adjective denotes an amount, a number, or a duration, the unit is singular—for example:

the four-story, 50-unit complex

65.5-million-dollar projection

6 thoughts on “Phrasal adjectives”

  1. Note, though, that in English-speaking countries outside of North America, the unit is sometimes made plural, at least in certain cases.

    So an Aussie or a Brit might say “fifty-metres” backstroke instead of “fifty-meter” backstroke.

    You can’t usually hear the difference in spelling.

      • Well, good to know.
        I guess I was lumping Brits and Aussies together, which I shouldn’t have done.

        I watched the on-line coverage of swimming at the London Games, and the commentators were two Aussies: Bruce McAvaney and a woman whose name I do not know (I know it was McAvaney only b/c I watch a lot of Aussie-Rules football for which he is commentator).

        I heard them use the construction above several times. It’s possible those individuals have a peculiar way of speaking.

        Anyway, sorry for throwing you all in there too.
        Thanks for setting me straight!

        • Actually, although we take johnesh at his word that he doesn’t do the “fifty-metres” thing, what you say is definitely borne out in U.K. news publications.

          Here are two searches limited to a selection of some of the most popular British news publications that make their content available online. The first is a search of “100 metre backstroke”: It appears once. The second is a search of “100 metres backstroke”: It appears 16 times.

          When we modify the search to cover historical archives going back through the 20th century, the ratio is roughly the same–about 15 “100-metres backsroke” for every one “100-metre backstroke”. The ratio is also roughly the same when we search a selection of Australian and New Zealand publications. So you are certainly right that many English speakers outside North America do the “50-metres” thing.

          This doesn’t totally invalidate what johnesh says, though. We’re skeptical of his claim that he’s never heard of anyone who does this–that would be implausible because it is clear that a great many people outside North America do it–but the non-North American English-speaking world is large enough to accomodate people with many different preferences.

    • It’s grammatically correct, though awkward, as it implies that longer hair is de facto more beautiful than short hair.

      It is less awkward with adjectives that are more accepted as conveying beauty: beautifully shiny hair (how odd would it be to have beautifully dull hair) or beautifully fine hair (vs. beautifully coarse hair).

      Similarly, read how awkward “beautifully red hair” seems, because there is no widespread consensus among English speakers that red hair is in any way more intrinsically more beautiful than some other color.


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