Compound Modifiers Abound in Descriptive Writing

compound modifiers about in creative writingWhen I had boarded and settled in for a recent flight, I reached for the airline magazine in the back-of-the-seat pouch in front of me.

True to form for this ruthless editor, I selected articles for not only enjoyment, but also for illumination, keeping my grammar radar on high alert: How do other writers use words and punctuation?

Two articles — one about Pioneertown, a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, and one about Fishtown, a residential area not far from Philadelphia’s historic district — were packed with examples of well-crafted, rich descriptions of American burgs and the colorful locals who inhabit them.

Narrowing my focus, I became acutely aware of the number of compound modifiers used throughout.

As I mentioned in a recent post about the short quiz I use when promoting my grammar book events, hyphens create compound modifiers. Do you recall “The seminar is for small business owners” versus “The seminar is for small-business owners”?

There were loads of compound modifiers in the two stories in front to me. Because examples instruct so well, I’m listing some here. Imagine some of the modifiers without the hyphen. Can you see how hyphens add clarity?

a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles

a cup of high-octane coffee

a well-worn Formica counter

a pair of steel-toed boots

his working-class roots

the top-floor music venue

a whole-animal butchery

the ever-present sound of the overhead train

a tight-knit community

old-school machine shops and older-school bars

a cash-only shot-and-beer joint

a high-end Italian restaurant

the whiskey-blending factory

role-playing games

long-term residents

a down-to-earth approach

largely blue-collar residential neighborhoods

a settlement of fully functional Western-style buildings

Note in the last two examples that modifiers ending in ly don’t require a hyphen: largely blue-collar residents, fully functional buildings.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, whether you write for business or pleasure, reading well-written pieces by others can inspire and instruct. How often do you approach reading through that lens?

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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)

2 thoughts on “Compound Modifiers Abound in Descriptive Writing

  1. AvatarNancy Boerger

    Ms. Watson,

    Thank you for this post. I understand the value of the hyphens used in your examples above, but I am wondering if their use is considered mandatory for good grammar or merely helpful. I see many compound modifiers without hyphens in otherwise good writing, which makes me wonder if such hyphen use is considered standard or is based on one’s audience and the familiarity of the phrases (well worn, long term). Could you please elaborate?

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Nancy, I don’t consider hyphens mandatory for all compound modifiers. Their use is more a matter of style and clarity than of a particular rule. I often prefer “guideline” to “rule,” allowing the writer to judge, as you point out, the audience and the familiarity of a phrase. What’s important is consistency; if you hyphenate “well-worn shoes” in one place in a document, it should be treated the same way on second use. Thank you for commenting!

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