I have been reading archaeological literature in english and some descriptions are constructed with several complex compound adjectives. My question is when you have for example “soft hammer flakes” does soft describes directly flakes or is bounded first to “hammer“ forming a compound adjective? In theory, it can not be a compound adjective because it lacks the hyphen but it does make sense when understood as one in because of the context.

I really hope you can help me. It drives me crazy.

  • In extremely specific technical language, virtually any set of words can be used as modifiers in some particular context. The actual meaning of the term should be clear in the literature; without looking, I would guess that soft hammer flakes would use soft to modify the variety of hammering, and the flakes that that variety produced. But that's just a guess. Scientists will use just about anything as a name. – John Lawler Apr 5 '19 at 16:50
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    It can be either, you just have to look at the context. For example, in theory soft hammer blows could mean blows from a soft hammer or soft blows from a hammer, but since hammers don't tend to be soft it's easy enough to guess which. In speech the prosody will tell you (although people say fine-tooth comb as if it was fine tooth-comb but in written Englishyou just have to figure out the most likely meaning. – user339660 Apr 5 '19 at 16:50
  • Somebody needs to take a hammer (hard or soft) to the author for not hyphenating to clarify his meaning. Do not imitate this flakey style. – David May 5 '19 at 19:35
  • @Minty Vehicle repairers often use a rubber hammer (I hope no American takes that the wrong way) which is quite soft, so panel beating could be said to done with "soft-hammer blows". However I can't imagine archaeologists using panel beating hammers to knock flakes off anything. The only substance I can think of which might form soft flakes would be dry clay, I wonder if that was the context of the original passage. – BoldBen May 6 '19 at 10:35

"Soft hammer flakes" is, in my opinion, [NP [Adj soft] [N hammer flakes]], that is, a Noun Phrase (NP) with the adjective "soft" modifying the compound noun "hammer-flakes", where "hammer" and "flakes" are both nouns. With that structure, the usual stress pattern would be 2 1 3, with primary stress on the first element of the compound "hammer". And that is how I'd say it.

Compare that with "soft squishy flakes", which has a different structure because "squishy" is an adjective rather than a noun. That has an expected stress pattern 2 3 1, with primary stress on "flakes", with structure [NP Adj Adj N]. I find that to be a good pronunciation.

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