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Is it always ok to have a superlative hyphenated with a present participle ending in -ing acting as an adjective (so long as the superlative describes the base verb of the participle)? For example:

  • most-burping woman
  • fastest-drinking college student
  • quietest-singing bird

Such a phrase that is commonly used is "highest-grossing film." Is this just a particular idiom?

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3 Answers 3

It is, but the hyphenated version will often give a meaning different from the unhyphenated one. The quietest-singing bird is the bird whose song is the quietest of all birds. The quietest singing bird is the singing bird who sings most quietly. Without the hyphen, highest grossing film would be absurd.

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So such a combination of words can always be used, with or without the hyphen, provided that it makes sense? –  Jimi Nov 14 '11 at 18:47
    
'Always' is a big word. I expect someone can produce an example where it's not possible, but, in principle, yes. –  Barrie England Nov 14 '11 at 18:51
    
It was pointed out that "most" is not in itself a superlative. So, is "most-burping woman" grammatically incorrect? –  Jimi Nov 14 '11 at 19:16
    
@Jimi: This is a more interesting, and more difficult, question than I first thought. I’ll give it some further consideration and post again if I can come up with anything illuminating. Perhaps someone else will do so in the meantime. –  Barrie England Nov 14 '11 at 20:06
    
@Barrie: I think it is indeed complex - most isn't normally hyphenated in this usage, which seems to be a relatively new style. In OP's other examples, the meaning changes according to whether the superlative is hyphenated (and thus modifies the present participle). If not, it's just another modifier for the noun. –  FumbleFingers Nov 14 '11 at 20:32
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The Wikipedia entry on English compounds notes:

Comparatives and superlatives in compound adjectives take hyphens:

  • "the highest-placed competitor"
  • "a shorter-term loan"

However, a construction with most is not hyphenated:

  • "the most respected member"

Compound adjectives that include comparatives and superlatives with more, most, less or least are normally not hyphenated.

So, by these guidelines:

  • The most burping woman
  • The fastest-drinking college student
  • The quietest-singing bird

Highest-grossing film isn't an idiom, but simply a superlative compounded with a present participle being used as an adjective, and is therefore hyphenated.

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OK, here are my further thoughts on all of this. Put very simply, regular English adjectives and adverbs form their comparatives and superlatives by inflection (-er and -est) when they are short and by a phrase (more . . ., most . . . ) when they are long. Adjectives that end in -ing, as they do when they are formed from a verb, take phrasal comparison, so amazing, for example, becomes more amazing and most amazing. That allows us to say things like the most amazing sight.

Adjectives in -ing, like all adjectives, may be modified by an adverb. In a working man, the adjective working can be modified by the adverb hard. How should we write the result? A hard working man could be construed as a man who both works and is hard, which is not the meaning intended. A hyphen gets us round the difficulty: a hard-working man. What if this paragon is exceptional, a harder worker than anyone else? No problem. We can call him the hardest-working man. Comparable examples might be the fastest-boiling kettle on the market, the longest-running show in London, the slowest-moving traffic.

How does this translate to the OP’s examples? Fastest-drinking college student and quietest-singing bird are on the same pattern as hardest-working man. In both cases, the word that modifies the -ing adjective is a superlative adverb. That is not the case with the unfortunate most burping woman. There, the words most burping form a superlative adjective on the same pattern as most amazing and, as Gwanme has shown, no hyphen is required. Highest-grossing film gets a hyphen because it’s on the same pattern as hardest-working man: grossing is an adjective modified by the superlative adverb highest.

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I guess something that is troubling me is that the meaning of "most" in "most burping girl" is ambiguous (most loud, most frequent, most obnoxious, etc.), whereas the "most" in "most amazing" seems to have a stricter range of meanings. –  Jimi Nov 15 '11 at 15:25
    
@Jimi: I suspect that what troubles you, as it troubles me, is the semantic nature of ‘burping’. We can modify ‘-ing’ adjectives with ‘most’ when they describe an intangible state, but not, it seems, when they describe a physical action. We can speak of ‘the most outstanding student’, but we can’t speak of ‘the most running athlete’. It follows that we can’t say ‘the most burping woman’ either. The thought would normally be expressed in some other way. I covered it in my reply for the sake of completeness, but did so aware that no one would be likely to say or write it. –  Barrie England Nov 15 '11 at 16:53
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