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GRAMMAR TIP: Compound Modifiers

I LOVE LOVE LOVE compound modifiers! I make it a point to go around hyphenating word groups, and once you learn what it’s all about, you’ll love them too. But what is a compound modifier?

A compound modifier refers to two or more words expressing a single concept. Regular adjectives modify nouns all the time, but a compound modifier goes much further.

Example: “His yellow-green teeth could be seen underneath his salt-and-pepper mustache.”

The words ‘yellow’ and ‘green’, and ‘salt’ and ‘pepper’ are adjectives modifying the nouns ‘teeth’ and ‘mustache’. Since they appear before the noun, they are hyphenated. If they followed the noun, they would no longer be hyphenated.

Example: “From underneath his mustache, which looked like salt and pepper, you could see his teeth of yellow and green.”

Let’s be honest, no one speaks like that. Compound modifiers help you paint a picture while also getting to the point, so use them. But remember, there are always exceptions.

The only time a compound modifier is not hyphenated ahead of the noun is if the word ‘very’ or an adverb ending in ‘-ly’ is used.

Example: “The very dark sky hovered over us” versus “The raven-black sky hovered over us.”

Sometimes, the compound modifier does keep the hyphenation after the noun—when it follows a form of the verb “to be”.

Example: “The soup was water-thin, but delicious all the same.”

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