So I recently had a question of how to translate a seemingly simple phrase which gave rise to a really puzzling dilemma. The phrase itself was "the eye which had been operated on", it was passive. However, the original language only used one single adjective + "eye", and I wanted to somehow retain that so as to not make the translation too wordy.

One option was to simply say "the treated eye", which was OK. But I also wondered whether I could use "operate" as an adjective. Which led me to 2 options: "the operated eye" and "the operated-on eye". The latter seemed to be more suitable because we normally say that surgeons "operate on" an organ/limb/tumor/... and people have operations "on" parts of their bodies, so I ought to keep the preposition. The former sounded a little ambiguous, since "operate" could be confused with "manipulated, controlled" as in a "machine which is operated from a control panel".

My question is twofold, I guess. Am I correct in thinking that phrasal verbs may be used as hyphenated phrasal adjectives and, if so, is doing so appropriate in this particular case?

  • But what is the phrasal verb that you are referring to? – BillJ Nov 1 '20 at 11:27
  • "Operate on". Isn't that a phrasal verb? – kirillandy Nov 1 '20 at 11:30
  • No: even if it were acceptable, it would just be a compound adjective consisting of past participle + preposition. – BillJ Nov 1 '20 at 11:31
  • Some verb+prep compounds are found, e.g. "Ed was a switched-on sort of guy", though they tend to be informal, or only marginally acceptable. – BillJ Nov 1 '20 at 11:52
  • I see. That probably explains why I feel like I've definitely heard this being used but I feel unsure of using it when writing. Thank you! – kirillandy Nov 1 '20 at 12:01

Informally/colloquially, you will find some past participle of phrasal verbs (verb + adverb) used as adjectives in the way you describe. However, you must be careful in accurately identifying a phrasal verb rather than {verb + collocated preposition}:

Intransitive verbs cannot be used this way:

The species died out. / *The died-out species used to live in Africa. [wrong] / The extinct species used to live in Africa.[correct]

Words such as “in, up, through, over, etc. etc” can be adverbs or prepositions. The formation of compound adjectives does not work if the word is a preposition rather than an adverb:

John was put upon (adv.) by David, and eventually the put-upon David rebelled. (correct)

The vase was put upon (prep.) the table by John / *The put-upon vase looked expensive. [wrong]

This is guidance rather than a rule: some phrasal verbs work; some do not work; some sound strange, and some can be imaginatively descriptive.

Phrasal verbs usually have a closely synonymous single word transitive verb. The single word verb should be your first choice of adjective.

One option was to simply say "the treated eye", which was OK. But I also wondered whether I could use "operate" as an adjective. Which led me to 2 options: "the operated eye".

To operate (in this sense) is intransitive and thus “[up]on” is a preposition – thus it does not work as a compound adjective. (I repeat: you may hear this use informally, or colloquially.)

In your case “treated” is accurate, idiomatic, and correct.

  • Thank you for the detailed explanation! I always catch myself trying to be as literal as possible when translating. The original used "operate" so I instinctively felt bounded by that. Synonyms usually work much better, I agree. Using "operated-on" got even more painful when I had to negate it and the only possible choice I had at that point would've been to just prepend an ugly "non-". Incidentally, would a simple "operated eye" be acceptable here as well? Is "operated" ever used to refer to surgical procedures? Or was I right in thinking that it would have been a bit vague? – kirillandy Nov 1 '20 at 11:17
  • @kirillandy would a simple "operated eye" be acceptable No. That is even worse, in fact it is wrong. In your context "operate" is intransitive and, as I wrote, intransitive verbs do not have a passive form, therefore the passive adjective fails. Surgeons "operate on something/someone" – Greybeard Nov 1 '20 at 16:40

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