Friday, June 19, 2015

The Case of the Compound Adjective and the Grown-Ass Man

What constitutes a compound adjective? Do you do hyphenate them or don’t you? If so, do you always do it? Shouldn’t punctuation be used as sparingly as possible? Or was it Cormac McCarthy who said that?

A compound adjective is one that comprises two or more distinct words. Most compound adjectives are two words, but three-word compound adjectives are not uncommon. Holier-than-thou, when used adjectivally, is an example of a three-word compound adjective, and conveniently enough, “three-word” is a fine example of a two-word compound adjective as used in this sentence.

The whole reason for hyphenating compound adjectives is to alleviate confusion. By their nature, a compound adjective modifies a noun, creating a three-word grouping; it is naturally ambiguous then, as the second word can often be thought to belong to one or the other, at least as an annoying echo, if not as a sensible coupling.

One phrase containing a compound adjective that has emerged into common modern parlance is the term, “grown-ass man,” describing a fully developed gent, capable in every way, with perhaps a connotation of indignation at a suggestion otherwise. You’ll notice the hyphen couples the first two words, whereas had the hyphen not been there, the term might refer to an adult male who has an established preference in potential mates.

You do not use the hyphen when a second word of a compound adjective is expected, and the most common instance of that is when the first of the two words is an adverb ending in -ly. Invoking Cormac McCarthy's austere prose as concerns punctuation, the hyphen would be redundant clutter here and we eschew it. It was a newly minted coin used as a hastily constructed alibi in a poorly written novel, but it was a hard-fought battle in a war-torn land for the benefit of a conflict-weary nation.

A grown-ass man