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Will these expressions sound natural (to native English speakers)?

Any better way to say:

1 - A turned on car

2 - A turned off car

3 - An idling car

4 - An idled car

5 - The car is turned off

6 - The car is turned on

7 - Turn on the car

8 - Turn off the car

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    Here in the UK we'd say that the car 'has the engine running' (if the engine is turning but the car is not being driven) or 'has the keys in' (if the car is unlocked and the electrics e.g. the radio are on but the engine is not turning). My guess is that this one will be different for different parts of the world though.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 16:40
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    Generally (in the US, at least) one does not "turn on" a car but rather "start" it. This "rule" is a bit vague for electric cars, of course. (If you simply enable the radio, etc, without starting, then you "turn on the ignition".)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 16:51
  • Oh yes, we 'start' a car in the UK too. Thanks @HotLicks.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 16:52

1 Answer 1

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There are lots of ways of talking about starting cars. Except for (1) and (2), these are fine.

There is an English grammar rule being violated in (1) and (2).
Native speakers know it, because they follow it, but they usually can't state it.
Non-native speakers need to be taught the rule, however, because it's not obvious.

  • When a noun modifier consists of more than one word, it goes after the noun it modifies.
    When a noun modifier consists of only one word, it goes before the noun it modifies.
    Mnemonic: an eleven-year old boy versus a boy eleven years old

Since turned off/on is more than one word, it must follow car, not precede it.
A car turned on/off is OK, but not *A turned off car.

(There is a single-word metaphoric term turned-on/off, which refers to affectual display,

  • He describes himself as a turned-on Christian.

but it's only metaphoric, and doesn't refer to actual machine power status.)

This rule is the one that makes the title of the famous cat video

so odd-sounding to native English speakers.

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    Good point about what native speakers "know" without being consciously aware of it. My first thought was "he" could also describe himself as a switched-on Christian, because that part of your text stood out to me before I'd even read what came before. But it wasn't until after I'd read the actual answer that I realised probably any "valid" example I could come up with would normally be hyphenated. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 17:18
  • Yes, that's one of the uses of hyphens. I wasn't stressing this in the answer, since it's grammar, not punctuation. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 17:21
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    Shouldn't it be an eleven-year-old boy? Isn't an eleven-year old boy an old boy that is eleven-year?
    – Toothrot
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:44
  • 'Maru and the Too Small Box' models on the more famous 'A Too Far Bridge'. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 9:51
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    Would you say that there is the occasional exception to the The eleven-year-old boy rule, John? 'She's famous for her pro bono work' (arguably a single lexeme, a rare compound adjective). Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 10:07

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