A relative of mine and I have hit a brick wall in trying to agree on the grammaticality and stylistic suitability of one his sentences:

However, it proved incapable of jeopardizing the under-socialism-fortified proletariat and nation.

I cautioned him that very complex compound adjectives are an ungainly 20th-century construct and tried to recast the dubitable phrase as:

... the proletariat and the nation, which were fortified under socialism.

He wouldn't hear of it, because his savvy readers would allegedly find a whiz-clause there too explicative. They're all too well aware of the attribute, yet he insists on including it because of the rest of his readers (:sigh: :rolleyes:). So, I tried with this:

... the proletariat and the nation, both fortified under socialism.

Although whiz-deletion1 doesn't call for a comma, I figured ", both" was necessary to secure the application of the attribute to both nouns, proletariat and nation.

All I got was a scoff in return. It still sounded too lecturing. Then we considered this:

... the proletariat and nation fortified under socialism.

He firmly holds that because the second definite article is omitted from the coordinated nouns, they're more congealed, so the attribute applies to both the proletariat and the nation. Well, I'm not so sure. Your thoughts on that?

Worst of all, after all the hubbub, he said he'd just go with his hyphenated version. But, disregarding the question of style, I'm only 99% sure2 that adverbial phrase + participle is a grammatically valid construction at all (though the (never hyphenated) adverb + participle and the (always hyphenated) noun + participle I'm 100% sure are valid). I̲s̲ i̲t̲?

(And, if it is, are all the hyphens needed? I know they are in established expressions such as dyed-in-the-wool and in constructions such as The state set a 55-mile-an-hour limit.)


1 John Lawler on whiz-deletion:

Interestingly, there is a codicil to Whiz-Deletion that applies when there is only one adjective left after deletion. The adjective has to be moved in front of the noun; it can't appear after it the way phrases can; conversely, phrases can't appear in front of the noun, but must follow it.

Bill is a man who is happy to see you.
Bill is a man happy to see you.
*Bill is a happy to see you man.

2 I've consulted The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, The Oxford Guide To English Usage, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, and found either nothing or an insufficient coverage.

  • 1
    "Multi-hyphenated premodifiers tend to break the don't-be-clumsy and don't-be-hard-to-make-sense-of rules if not the don't-be-ambiguous rule. They're suitable only in half-witty dialogue." (I wrote this in another thread some time ago. Since when I've lost an article which quoted a couple of multi-hyphenated premodifiers used for effect, but remember that it cautioned against over-frivolity. Although there is no rule giving a cut-off point of two hyphens, most people at all concerned about style would rarely indulge themselves with quirky novel compounds.) Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 11:51
  • Did you mean hubbub? Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:28
  • Yes :) I'll correct it, thx.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:36
  • This sentence reminds me of a Theodore Bikel routine called "Three Literature Professors" in which a German professor's talk on translation starts off (with heavy German accent) "The from the German into the English language translation by no means a so easy a task as it appears to be is." Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 17:56

2 Answers 2


Send your relative to Sussex (and take him to Trask) :

. . . In any case, do not go overboard with large and complex modifiers. The cumbersome anti-seal-killing campaigners can easily be replaced by campaigners against seal-killing, which is much easier to read. . . .

Larry Trask, 1977

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    Coo. Trask actually said something sensible! Actually, in this case, all that is needed is socialism-fortified because that can only happen under or with socialism.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:39
  • Now that's coo! Thank you, that solves everything.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:45

Your relative's phrase is not "an ungainly 20th century construct". It's the ordinary way of expressing this thought ... in German.

Under-socialism-fortified is possible in English, but it means something quite different: a nation inadequately fortified with socialism.

The established way of expressing this in English is with the indefinite article:

It proved incapable of jeopardizing a proletariat and nation fortified under socialism.

If you wanted to suggest that only the nation was fortified, but not the proletariat, you would write

It proved incapable of jeopardizing the proletariat and a nation fortified under socialism.

  • One Mann's ordinary way of expressing a thought is another man's ungainly 20th century construct. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 11:54
  • @EdwinAshworth I take it you are speaking of the with the Nobel Prize honored Thomas rather than his known best as author of the source of The Blue Angel brother Heinrich? Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:22
  • I understand what you're saying, but he had already expounded on both those entities being fortified under socialism; this sentence I think is more of a sublimation of his previous discussion. If I'm to tell him to change the article, how should I back it up? Just insist on its being the established way? And yes, both nouns must be modified.
    – Talia Ford
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 12:27
  • I've just worked that one out. I'm not in a very Turing-Tutte-and-Flowers frame of mind today. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 16:53
  • @TaliaFord Pp. 416-17 in this work may be helpful. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 17:07

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