4 Things To Remember About Compound Modifiers

Rolling Stone DrummerMastering compound modifiers challenged me until my college journalism instructor introduced me to the The Associated Press Stylebook. A compound modifier is two or more words that express a single concept and are descriptive or make meanings more specific.

During a recent trip, I filled part of my airport and flight time with the June 2015 issue of Rolling Stone (No. 1237). Because the publication’s writing is so vivid, I found dozens of examples of compound modifiers. “What a great blog topic!” I thought.

My trusted AP Stylebook provides these four basics:

1) Hyphenate a compound modifier that precedes a noun when there is risk of misinterpretation or confusion.

The seminar drew hundreds of small business owners.
The seminar drew hundreds of small-business owners.

It was the third second rate movie she had seen this year.
It was the third second-rate movie she had seen this year.

In the first example, we need a hyphen to clarify that the business owners were not petite or undersized; they were owners of small, not large, businesses.

In the second example, the proximity of third and second can be confusing. Adding a hyphen makes the meaning clear.

2) Many word combinations that are hyphenated preceding a noun are not hyphenated when they follow a noun.  

She relocated to accept a full-time job.
Her job became full time when she relocated.

The company showed skyrocketing first-quarter profits.
Profits skyrocketed in the company’s first quarter.

3) When a compound modifier follows a form of the verb to be (am, are, is, was, were, has/had/have been), retain the hyphen. *Changed by the Associated Press in September 2019: no hyphen following forms of the verb to be.

Shareholders elected a well-known woman from the community to serve on the board.
The woman, who is well known in the community, has been elected by shareholders to serve on the board.

The clever, quick-witted young man kept them laughing all evening.
The young man was so clever and quick witted that he kept them laughing all evening.

4) A hyphen is not needed with very or with an adjective or adverb ending in ly.

He knew it was unlikely to have a very strong storm occur at this time of day.
The barely worn dress ended up at the consignment shop.
A curly haired girl jumped in front of the camera.

Note: Very, although commonly used, is considered a weak and nondescript adjective or adverb:

blah: The Olympian is very pretty, and she runs very fast.
better: The Olympian is gorgeous, and she runs like a cheetah.

Despite these four guidelines, The AP Stylebook declares that hyphen use is far from standardized. In many cases, hyphens can be considered optional.

Bonus examples from Rolling Stone
Here are examples from the issue of Rolling Stone I enjoyed during my travels. Some phrases are modified slightly for use here. Would you hyphenate them all as shown?

Why produce a series about a middle-aged, coke-snorting, one-hit wonder?
I like the band’s dysfunctional-family dynamic.
The show is presented as an eight-episode miniseries.
He sports a shirt with a chaotic magic-marker whorl on its front.
Cuomo’s marijuana-policy reform is no exception.
B.B. King admitted, “I loved that good-hearted lady.”
Great harmonies elevate the mandolin-tinged title cut.
She shone in her three-disc debut.

Here are the magazine’s modifiers using three or more words:

Wet Hot American Summer will get its long-prayed-for second coming.
The track is bulked up with Dominic Howard’s punch-to-the-heart drumming.
He wails like a down-on-his-luck drummer.

I hope these examples help you decide when to add — or not to add — a hyphen to a compound modifier.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)