by Kathleen Watson
When 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. Because examples instruct so well, I’m listing several here.
Imagine these 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
- a cash-only shot-and-beer joint
- a high-end Italian restaurant
- 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 or for business or pleasure, reading well-written pieces by others can inspire and instruct. How often do you approach reading through that lens?
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.
Compound modifiers streamline the writing and reading experience. Share your own examples here. Request a one-word-or-two reference sheet by emailing email@example.com
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