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I'm having a disagreement about how to treat a compound descriptor like "This is one of those everyone-shut-up-and-go-away kind of days."

It has been claimed to me that this descriptor can just as well be italicized, like so:

"This is one of those everyone shut up and go away kind of days."

I have not been able to find any evidence for this, and I don't recall seeing it myself.

Can anyone provide a source that advocates for italics? I've had trouble looking this up because most entries on compound words only deal with the kind that has two words ("blue-green dress"), and those are always hyphenated, not italicized.

[Edit] The claim comes from a writer who disagreed with my correction of her work, and insisted that italicizing the phrase is just as correct. My subsequent inquiries have uncovered that this usage can be found in certain fiction novels (I haven't read them, but friends mentioned this to me), which leads me to guess that it's a result of poor editing and not an accepted usage. As these kinds of things do sometimes get taken up, it may one day be seen as the "correct" way [see the modern use of "artful" to mean "artistic"]. However, since no one has brought forth any convincing argument or source for the usage, at present I believe it's simply incorrect.

Research:

http://www.stat.ufl.edu/~presnell/Various/Strunk-and-White/etes_htm.htm

http://www.uhv.edu/ac/newsletters/writing/grammartip2004.11.30.htm

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    Italics just differentiate the text from the background. They don't capture the compounding. I'd go with hyphens.
    – user24964
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 16:17
  • Welcome to EL&U. Please edit the question to share your research.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 16:30
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    I would think just about anything that strings the phrase together and sets it off from the rest of the sentence is fine.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 9:20
  • Absurdly long compound modifiers aren't good style, unless for humorous purposes, so you could do them in polka-dot ink or like an Egyptian cartouche and it's equally correct. If someone deliberately uses non-standard English for literary effect, they normally get to choose the layout/typography/style, at least within reason, based on my experience of publishing.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 14:03

3 Answers 3

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There are two ways I have seen to solve the exaggerated compound descriptor issue.

If the description is in the form of something you might utter as an admonition, you can use quotes:

This is one of those "everyone shut up and go way" kind of days.

But if it is not in itself a statement someone might make, stick with hyphens.

This is one of those missing-the-bus-and-being-late-for-work kind of days.

These are not rules, and I don't think you'll find anything definitive on this, but it's what I observe from decades of assiduous reading.

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  • Did you mean this second sentence to say "stick with hyphens"?: "But if it is not in itself a statement someone might make, stick with (quotes)." Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 18:34
  • @KristinaLopez: Yes, thanks. Next time, feel free to edit obvious brain cramps.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 18:40
  • That was not an obvious brain cramp.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 18:57
  • In support of this, I have just read Geoffrey Pullum’s latest post on Language Log <languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4419>, in which he speaks of the same drivel about things-people-have-words-for and words-people-have-for-things. Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 15:45
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I have never seen this usage that I recall. If it's done, it's surely not common, and so would at best be unclear to the reader.

I HAVE seen people put the compound in quotes, like:

This is one of those "everyone shut up and go away" kind of days.

I presume the goal of either technique -- italics or quotes -- is to eliminate the long hyphenated phrase. I can see that it is a little ugly, and in these word-processor-writing days, the computer may decide that the whole thing has to go on one line (depending on line-break settings), which can mess up margins.

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  • Hmm. Titles of some works are supposed to be italicized, or if italics are not available, put into quotes. I wonder if someone extrapolated from this - if quotes and italics are in a sense equivalent, why not apply it to compound adjectives? (Not saying whether it's a good idea or not, just musing about a possible source.)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 19:08
  • @Marthaª Not necessarily disagreeing with you, but to be pedantic, the rule that I was taught is that the title of a complete, full-length work, like a book or the name of a magazine, should go in italics, or if italics are not available, be underlined. The title of a section of a work, like a chapter in a book or an article in a magazine, or of a shorter work, like a poem or a short story, should go in quotes. They're not interchangeable. (See, e.g., MLA Handbook, sections 2.6.2 and 2.6.3)
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 20:12
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They may position the text as a key term.

Use italics for the first case of a new or technical term, a key term, or a label. Don't italicize the subsequent appearances of new or technical terms or key terms.

APA Style Blog: Using Italics for Technical (or Key) Terms

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