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Does anyone know why the adjective in "chicken-fried steak" is hyphenated by some people but not by others? What do writing guides on both sides of the pond say about this issue?

The following is its definition:

a thin piece of beef that is lightly battered and fried until crisp.

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    Comments deleted. Please use comments to elicit further information, not to argue. Apollyon, it would probably help if you explained what "chicken-fried steak" actually was, to help those for whom that is a strange phrase. – Andrew Leach Nov 28 '20 at 15:13
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    Does Is it correct to hyphenate compound premodifiers? If so where is the hyphen placed? answer your question? Or compounds involving compounds?If you think this example bucks trends, what research do you provide to support this view? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 28 '20 at 19:49
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    Can you edit your answer to clarify what variety of English you're asking about? One of your tags is 'british-english' but you mention nothing about that in the text of your question. Are you asking how one should write this regional Americanism in the UK (if it is in fact a different spelling/punctuation than in the US)? – Mitch Nov 29 '20 at 0:15
  • I'm interested to know whether Brits tend to write such compounds with a hyphen. The hyphen in attributive compound adjectives seems compulsory in the US, at least in educated writings. – Apollyon Nov 29 '20 at 2:43
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Frederic Cassidy, Dictionary of American Regional English (1985) spells the term with a hyphen, although it acknowledges at least one variant spelling:

chicken-fried steak n Also chicken-fry steak chiefly West A steak, usu an inexpensive cut, breaded and fried. [Examples from the 1960s and 1970s—including one unhyphenated instance of "Chicken Fry Steak"—omitted.]

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) insists on a single spelling, with hyphenation:

chicken-fried steak n (1952) : steak coated with batter, fried, and served with gravy.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010) views "chicken-fried" as an all-purpose modifier, not inextricably bound to "steak":

chicken-fried adj. Coated with butter and seasoned flour and fried: chicken-fried steak.

The idea that this compressed term conveys is "steak cooked in approximately the same manner as fried chicken"—not "steak prepared by a gallinaceous fry-cook." It is an extremely popular menu item in small-town eateries in Texas (where I grew up), although in my experience "chicken-fried bootleather" might in some cases be a more accurate term for it. Such restaurants tend not to seek out authoritative sources of spelling and punctuation for the items they offer before committing them to paper (and lamination), which probably contributes to the real-world variations one may encounter in the spelling and punctuation of "chicken-fried steak."

On a peripheral matter, I note that Merriam-Webster's first occurrence date of 1952 for the term is way off. Instances of "chicken-fried steak" appear in newspapers at least as early as June 1, 1924 (in Indianapolis, Indiana), October 21, 1926 (in Stephenville, Texas) and January 31, 1930 (in Eagle Rock [a neighborhood in Los Angeles], California). Instances of "chicken fried steak" appear as early as November 17, 1920 (in Breckenridge, Texas). Overall, Elephind newspaper database searches turn up 458 instances of "chicken-fried steak" and 5,920 instances of "chicken fried steak," suggesting that lots of folks feel no obligation to hyphenate the dang thing, regardless of what the dictionaries may say.

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    I wonder if this has to do with the influence of hyphenation in "country fried steak," which I almost never see hyphenated. It means about the same thing as chicken fried steak to me, not trying to open that can of worms. – livresque Nov 29 '20 at 1:34
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In its homeland of the American South, to chicken-fry is a verb, meaning to batter and deep-fry some chunk of beef (called a "steak" by convention, but usually pounded to reduce toughness).

The name comes from the fact that Southern fried chicken is cooked the same way (though usually without the pounding). Steaks cooked this way are said to have been chicken-fried. Traditionally they are served with sausage pan gravy.

As for the hyphen, since you can't hear it in speech, it's optional and therefore random in use, which is largely on restaurant menus. (Chicken-fry the verb has its own entry in a Dutch dictionary.)

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I'm British and I've never heard the phrase before. However, since you have defined it, I would punctuate it:

chicken-fried steak

This makes it clear that chicken-fried is a adjective describing the steak.

The only other possibility would be "chicken fried-steak". This would refer to chicken steaks (if such a things exists) that had been fried.

Leaving out the punctuation means the phrase is ambiguous to those who aren't familiar with the phrase.

Answer

chicken-fried steak

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  • Do British guides say the hyphen is compulsory in compound adjectives of this sort? – Apollyon Nov 28 '20 at 17:21
  • What about writing textbooks for university students? Don't they mention a word about how to use hyphens? – Apollyon Nov 28 '20 at 17:32
  • @Apollyon - What guides are you talking about? Different publications have style guides about punctuation etc. There are no cast-iron laws about British punctuation. If you want to read more then look at some of the results of this online search hyphenated adjectives – chasly - supports Monica Nov 28 '20 at 17:33
  • P.S. You will note that , besides written articles, there are YouTube and other videos that discuss the subject. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 28 '20 at 17:35
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What do writing guides on both sides of the pond say about this issue?

As far as I am aware "chicken fried steak" is unknown in British English. I would have no idea what it meant with or without hyphens.

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  • The first time I heard of it I thought it was steak fried in chicken fat. – Michael Harvey Nov 28 '20 at 15:10
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    What on earth is this type of 'British English'? The sort that doesn't recognise Americanisms as existing, or assimilation of words from non-UK Anglophone areas? – Edwin Ashworth Nov 28 '20 at 15:11
  • I'm asking how Brits would handle its punctuation, after learning its definition. – Apollyon Nov 28 '20 at 15:31
  • @Apollyon That would be a theoretical problem only in BE. I suppose the meaning is "[chicken-fried] steak. But as "chicken-fried" is not a recognised adjective, the point of saying or writing it would be lost. In fact, what you describe is akin to a "wiener-schnitzel" - a piece of veal that is beaten thin and then breaded and then fried with only a little oil/butter. I therefore would call a "[chicken-fried] steak, a [breaded] steak schnitzel. – Greybeard Nov 28 '20 at 18:42
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    'chicken-fried [adj] [in British English] ... 1. (Cookery) (of meats, esp steak) coated in seasoned flour and pan-fried ...' [Collins English Dictionary; 2014] – Edwin Ashworth Nov 28 '20 at 19:57

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