"This is an interesting-looking book."

The point of the hyphen is to make 'looking' relate to 'interesting' and not directly to 'book'. 'Looking' modifies 'interesting'…or is it the other way around? Is 'looking' considered an adverb, or is 'interesting-looking' considered one word and one POS? 'Looking' would normally be a participle, which would make it an adjective. Can an adjective modify another adjective?

Oh, and calling it a 'compound adjective' is really just a way of ducking the issue. The point is that 'interesting book' is different from 'interesting-looking book', so 'looking' has modified (in the most literal sense) 'interesting'.

Another point is that 'looking' can't be used as an adjective on its own--'a looking book'…errr...except I just thought of 'looking glass', so scratch that.

  • I don’t think this question is very well-worded or particularly clearly written, but I am seriously struggling to see the logic behind ELL-voting a question that is (when it comes down to it) about the relationship between constituents in modifiers compounded from verb phrases and how these constituents differ or don’t differ from adjectives. This might possibly have been a better fit over at Linguistics than here, but ELL is vehemently not the place to discuss syntactical transformations at this level. And it is very much about the English language, so perfectly on topic here. Jul 8 '16 at 20:28

A compound noun is a noun (though it might consist of two orthographic words); some modern dictionaries have adopted the practice of labelling even open compounds 'noun':

school bus n.

A publicly or privately owned vehicle


They treat other compounds similarly:

bottle green n. A dark to moderate or grayish green.

bottle-green adj.


In the thread Compounds and Phrases - differences, John Lawler (1) contrasts compounds with phrases, and (2) states that compounds are treated as if they were unitary:

Phrases belong to syntax. But phrases can be frozen, and those are dealt with as if they were single words.

Point (1) invites the question 'Where does the divide come?'; this has been the subject of various papers and is still disputed.

JL reinforces point (2) in the Labelling of noun components of a verb thread:

[S]cuba certainly refers to a noun, but it's been locked into the compound [in scuba diving] and isn't really functioning as a noun syntactically.

The sense in using this approach is endorsed by the fact that compounds with different variants (eg particle board / particle-board / particleboard; ink well / ink-well / inkwell) (but contrast blackbird / black bird) are really merely spelling variations.

JL does add that it is reasonable on the other hand to trace the etymology of compounds:

If you wanted to class these compound verbs [etc] as having nominal [etc] sources, that would be reasonable.

So 'interesting-looking', a compound premodifier and compound adjective, is an adjective. Classing 'interesting' as a (participial) adjective and 'looking' as a more 'verby' ing-form, we can see where the word originated.

The BBC World Service website has a good overview of the parts of speech that can be seen to have combined to form compound adjectives. But adjective plus adjective is also a possibility, as in 'blue-green'.

  • Thank you for this answer. One comment…with 'blue-green', aren't the parts kind of in parallel, rather than modifying one another? Whereas 'bluey-green' would be green dragged towards blue, and 'greeny-blue' would be blue dragged towards green. "Blue-Green" is like an evenly matched tug-of-war.
    – Dunsanist
    Jul 9 '16 at 13:56
  • Yes, but 'modify' is, in my experience, ill-defined (ie different authors use the term differently). And as JL indicates, insisting on rigorous compositionality in compounds will lead to problems. For instance: << There’s a wide range of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). In fresh waters, they’re suspended within the water or attached to rocks and other surfaces. They include single-celled species and others whose cells are arranged in colonies and filaments.... Jul 9 '16 at 15:43
  • It's difficult to see individual cells, colonies and filaments, but you usually can when they’re concentrated into clumps. These clumps can look like green flakes, greenish bundles or brownish dots. >> {UK Environment Agency_Blue-green Algae} [bolding mine] Jul 9 '16 at 15:45

(I’m not sure if I’m repeating, agreeing, or disagreeing with what Edwin’s answer says… but I have some different points, too.)

There are various types of elements that can be used to modify nouns: possessives (arguable whether they modify or merely determine), other noun phrases acting as adjuncts, adjectival phrases, and verb phrases, to name a few. Each of these can modify in two ways: attributively and predicatively.

In predicative modification, a finite verb is required in English, and with types that don’t already supply one (i.e., everything except verb phrases), a dummy auxiliary BE is inserted.

In attributive modification, it’s the other way around: a finite verb is not allowed. This isn’t a problem for possessives, noun phrases, and adjectives phrases—you just plop them up before the noun they modify and Bob’s your uncle. With verb phrases, you need to do a bit of moving around, though. You can do that in two ways: by moving the verb phrase into a subordinate clause which follows the noun phrase, or by creating an actual attributive verb phrase which precedes the noun like an adjective or noun adjunct.

In order to satisfy the no-finite-verbs rule when creating this type of phrase, you convert the finite verbal form into a corresponding participle: present participle if the finite verb is active, past (passive) participle if it’s passive. If the verb in question has no complements, the participle on its own modifies the noun phrase and is traditionally often called (and often fairly indistinguishible from) an adjective.

If the verb does have a complement—meaning for transitive verbs essentially an object, for linking verbs essentially a subject complement—the entire verbal phrase is turned into a compound. In a verb phrase, the verb is always the head and the complement is the dependent, and this relationship is maintained when the phrase is turned into a compound: the participle (verb) becomes the head and the complement becomes the dependent.

In your example here, look is a linking verb, and interesting is its (subject) complement. The underlying—if you can call it underlying—predicative construction to “[this is an] interesting-looking book” is “[this] book looks interesting”, where looks is the finite verb and interesting is the subject complement. With a transitive verb, you might turn “the woman runs marathons” into “the marathon-running woman”.

In this scenario, calling the participle an adjective is more problematic. Adjectives generally do not take complements, and on the rare occasion that they do, they cannot be used attributively in this manner with their complement. To use the most well-known example of a ‘transitive adjective’, worth, you cannot transform “the book is worth money” into “*the money-worth book”. You can, however, turn “the book costs money” into “the money-costing book”, even if it’s not exactly pretty or idiomatic. If you want to shoehorn participles into the group called ‘adjectives’, you will at least have to make them a special subgroup of that group, with special properties not shared with other adjectives.

The modifier ‘interesting-looking’ is an endocentric compound made from a verbal phrase (what Germans calls a verbales Rektionskompositum and English sadly doesn’t really have a standard term for), and it possesses the general characteristics of endocentric compounds, one of which is that the dependent modifies the head. So interesting (the complement/dependent) modifies looking (the verb/head). This is another way in which participles differ from true adjectives: adjectives cannot modify true adjectives, but they can modify participles.


(As for ‘looking glass’, that is an altogether different kettle of fish. Looking here is not an adjective, but also not a participle: it’s a verbal noun… or possibly a gerund. I don’t think there’s really any way to tell which. Traditional grammar seems to label -ing forms found as the first member of compounds as gerunds. At any rate, it’s a noun, used as a noun adjunct to modify the head glass in another endocentric compound. A looking glass is not a glass that is looking [at something], but a glass for looking.

The reason that looking on its own is not normally used to modify a noun phrase, though, is because it’s not normally used as an intransitive verb either, except in the imperative. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used this way, though: “the man looks” would be transformable to “the looking man”.)

  • 1
    Are you sure this answer wouldn't be more appropriate on ELL? (Heavy sarcasm intended, but not to you. I'm just sick of people throwing their weight around on this site.) I read Edwin Ashworth's answer as covering how compounds behave, and yours as covering why it has to be 'interesting-looking' not 'a looks-interesting book'. I wish I could mark them together as a compound answer. :-)
    – Dunsanist
    Jul 9 '16 at 13:48
  • By the way, since you mention German, I know that huge compound constructions are possible in German. Are they restricted to nouns, or can they be modifiers of various kinds as well? Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften.<<Joy!
    – Dunsanist
    Jul 9 '16 at 14:05
  • Oh, and one other thing…you usually wouldn't say 'the looking man', but 'the man looking' is fine. Why? ('The man looking had grey hair.') Aren't they both participles? Normally the participle only goes after the noun if the participle has a whole phrase--"The man looking in the window had grey hair". Then again, you could also say 'the dog running is mine'.
    – Dunsanist
    Jul 9 '16 at 14:13
  • You wouldn’t usually say it, just like you wouldn’t usually say, “The man looks”—but given the right context, you could. For example, imagine your significant other cooks something that looks like the contents of a toilet dumped into a bog. You want to be kind and say something nice, but you can’t bring yourself to actually complement it. If you were a character on a tv show, you might then say something like, “Oh… that looks… I mean, it looks very… yeah. That’s a very… looking dish you’ve made.” (That also uses the same look, the linking verb, rather than the look at one.) Jul 9 '16 at 14:19
  • Yes, but there you are deliberately scrambling grammar to avoid meaning. Then you can defend yourself…'I didn't mean that!' Because what you said didn't mean anything. It's a common tactic for politicians, spouses, and other people with a lot to lose by actually expressing things clearly.
    – Dunsanist
    Jul 9 '16 at 14:34

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