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Hyphenation in compound adjectives
To hyphenate or not?

I recently read the term "electrical system operators" in an article, and I immediately felt that this sounded wrong, because it is the system that's electrical, not the operators. I would always try to rwrite this as "operators of electrical systems". Do native English speakers have the same problem as me (I'm German)?

  • Yes, you are right. Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 6:36
  • As Barrie says, there's no real ambiguity in this particular case, but when there is, you can just use a hyphen. Rewording is overkill. See e.g. Chicago Manual of Style, 6.39: "When a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, it is often hyphenated to avoid misleading the reader. (e.g. 'a fast sailing ship': is it a 'ship that is sailing fast', in which case you should hyphenate it, or 'a sailing ship that is fast', in which case you should leave it unhyphenated.)" We have dozens of questions covering this already.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


This situation actually has a name: compound adjectives; along with tons of discussion in well-respected style guides like CMS and APA.

Even though it will seem awkward at first, adjectives that modify other adjectives should be hyphenated to help clear up examples such as yours. Example:

Electrical-engineering firm : A firm that practices electrical engineering.

Electrical engineering firm : An engineering firm that runs of electricity.

Only copyeditors follow this rule, and even then only if they are not trumped by an in-house style guide.

Many will say "oh it's common sense" but here's a humdinger:

Big clothing store

Do they sell big clothes? Or are they a big store? Both are very possible, and my fat-ass uncle is going to be pissed if he drives across town just to find out it's just a store with a lot of square feet.

  • 'Big clothing store' is unlikely to occur in isolation. There will almost always be some clue as to what is meant. In any case, are clothes in large sizes really called 'big clothing'? Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 7:51
  • 2
    A small appliance factory went bankrupt yesterday. Did they make toasters or just have a small staff?
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 8:10
  • 2
    And my point isn't that context isn't usually available, it's that there is actually a grammatically rule so that it doesn't have to be, and ignoring it is basically like expecting someone to hear your tone of voice in am email. Usually it works out, but it can be pretty awful when it doesn't.
    – Anthony
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 8:12
  • I wonder if any production plant would actually ever be called an appliance factory. Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 8:51
  • @Anthony Do you have a reference for this? Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 11:48

Context, and common sense, will usually remove any possible ambiguity. Only the most perverse would say that electrical system operators could mean that the operators rather than the system were electrical.

  • Using strong grammar and punctuation does not just prevent ambiguity (which may be unlikely to a native speaker, and aided by simple common sense and context), it also improves the clarity, rhythm, and resonance of both written and spoken prose. I was looking up lyrics to a silly song the other day and noticed the line: "And the tears upon the pillow that I shed". Obviously nobody is going to think the singer is shedding pillows, but that kind of clunkiness is what separates clever wordplay from accidental ambiguity, and timeless, poignant prose from a forgettable pop song.
    – Anthony
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 11:35

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