Araucaria's answer to the following ELL question ("Why is “letter” not plural in “two letter words”?") brought up an interesting issue that I am still unsure about. What is the internal syntactic structure of modifiers like "two-letter" (in "two-letter word") or "five-mile" (in "five-mile run")?

Araucaria left a comment saying

H&P call them compound adjective constructions

While BillJ thought

I think "three-letter" is a noun-centred compound noun (det+noun) as attributive modifier of "word" in your example. I know dictionaries are unreliable, but they all give "four-letter" as a single noun in "four-letter word". The fact that it is hyphenated is an indication that "four-letter" is single lexeme, not a syntactic construction of modifier + noun (see CGEL p1644) [...] If the main component of a compound word is a noun, then the word can only be a noun. There is nothing adjectival about "three-letter" in "three-letter word". "Three-letter" is a noun-centred compound noun modifying "word".

I am not convinced hyphenation practices are relevant, since not everyone uses hyphenation in these circumstances anyway. Also, entire sentences or prepositional phrases can be hyphenated when they are used as preposed attributives, but I don't think that this means that they change their part-of-speech to become adjectives.

At least, it seems to me that Benjamin Bruening says these are syntactic compounds in The Lexicalist Hypothesis: Both Wrong and Superfluous, giving the following examples:

(1) a. I gave her a don’t-you-dare! look.
b. She baked her fiance a sweet I-love-you cake.

(I also found some other papers mentioning "phrasal compounds" like this; here are the download links: https://is.cuni.cz/webapps/zzp/download/130072761/?lang=en, ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/000599/current.pdf)

So, what evidence is there about the syntax of this construction? Should "two-letter" etc. be analyzed as compound nouns, compounds that are adjectives, noun phrases, or what?


1 Answer 1


Am I living in a different continuum? Like Monty Harder earlier, I was taught nearly 50 years ago that a multi-word phrase used as an adjective is hyphenated, as in ‘ten-minute programme.’ We called that ‘adjectival hyphenation’ and quickly passed over it as almost axiomatic. Now it looks as though no-one else remembers anything.

In 20 years writing and producing newspapers and magazines I discussed those details, under that name, with hundreds of writers and editors on dozens of publications. Everyone recognised the topic and its basic rules.

Now Google, anyway, doesn’t even know the name… though happily https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=adjectival+hyphenation leads to pages of hyphenated adjective forms in the Chicago Manual of Style, many non-numeric.

  • Mari-Lou first I'm sorry and after that, I don't understand. What was upsetting about that above, please? I'd give you a longer apology if I understood. Apr 23, 2017 at 16:49
  • I'm still sorry and I still meant that, however clumsily I put it - I can't defend what I thought was an expression of pure surprise… you and presumably other readers took it another way, which proves I wasn't clear. I wasn't and I'm not trying to indicate 'you should have known that' or anything of the kind. I was trying - and clearly failing - to express total surprise that any one of the regular contributors here found the question in any way novel… and triply so that Google found no record of the topic, let alone any details. How would you have put that? Apr 23, 2017 at 17:01
  • I don’t know who Monty is, either… except the only one who seemed not to find this new. I think I’m entitled to that surprise and I don’t know what he’s ‘another example’ of. I also don’t follow why you’re looking at up-votes or what you think I thought about Araucaria’s answer… Apr 23, 2017 at 17:40
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    OK: That was the system's idea. Sorry, Mari-Lou. I got that impression from reading this and the previous thread from which it grew. Isn’t that what you did? If you'd been taught something - in this case, 'adjectival hyphenation' - 50 years ago, and used it professionally for a generation, then found that a group of respected experts in pretty-much the same field didn’t recognise the term, would you shrug your shoulders or try to find out that happened? How could anyone consider the term ‘adjectival hyphenation’ to be the explanation, when no-one recognises the term? Apr 23, 2017 at 18:46
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    Sorry to go on so long. I wasn't saying that, though I believe it's been tried… ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ or ‘life-and-soul-of-the-party person’ or ‘born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-each-hand sort of guy’ prolly prove any rule. I do see all the examples in your question as adjectival hyphenation, as CMS shows… ‘Nearly three-hour marathon’ is a fine example, the hyphen being meant to rule out ‘[nearly three]-hour’ - though outside grammar, I missed the difference. Try the same with the light green dress at sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/hyphenanddash/hyphen Apr 23, 2017 at 23:12

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