The Phrase That Pays

Using Phrasal Adjectives


Buckeroos! Let's talk about phrasal adjectives, shall we?

I don't get a whole lot of TLDRs on my posts (IKR?), but I'm a lifelong learner intent on scoring 100% on all social media strength tests, so I'll be breaking this up into several posts. Not only is this necessary because the topic is fairly involved, but also it allows me to score bigger SEO points within the group.

So what's a phrasal adjective (bonus lesson #1: DO NOT put a comma after "so" if you are so inclined to use "so" to begin a sentence, which, frankly, you should fucking avoid like the plague)?
In simplest terms, a phrasal adjective is a phrase (i.e., more than one word) that functions collectively as an adjective to modify another word or phrase.

Today's example shall be "fast moving train."

Taken literally, "fast moving train" means a fast train used for moving. In the absence of hyphens or commas, the word "fast" is modifying the word "train," which is modified by the word "moving." Linguistically, English syntax dictates this way of reading the phrase.


Some of you will already be screaming like recently castrated banshees (bonus lesson #2: do not use a hyphen after a modifier ending in -ly) that there is no such thing as a "moving train."

Really? You know every animal, vegetable, and mineral in existence? Go on with your bad self, motherfucker. For those without a god complex, assume such things MAY exist and act accordingly. That's what "real" writers do.

The takeaway—one must first determine one's intended meaning. If you mean a fast "moving train," use "fast moving train." If you want to establish two "equal" modifiers, use a comma, such as with "fast, red train."

Note, and this is important, that I didn't use "fast, moving train." Why? Because "fast" and "moving" are not equal in this context. Either "fast" is modifying "moving train" or "fast moving" is modifying train.

Let's assume our intended meaning is the most likely, that the train is moving pretty goddamn fast. If so, we should write it as "fast-moving train." The phrasal adjective is "fast-moving," and it modifies "train." You may poke fun at the idea of a "moving train," but careful writers realize that many other examples exist wherein readers could be confused by the failure to include a hyphen:

much argued over issue

business telephone call protocol 

13 year old court ordered busing plan 

24 hour a day doctor supervised care


[Examples from Garner's Modern English Usage.]

One last thing. For the most part, phrasal adjectives are not hyphenated if they follow the word they modify. This is because the reader will not be surprised or confused by a modifier following the word in question, hence we have "well-worn shoes" but "shoes that are well worn." This last also points out a reason for phrasal adjectives—economy of word use.

But mostly phrasal adjectives help readers understand what the hell they are reading. Which, if you claim to be a writer, you should give a damn about.

That's all I got today, Buckeroos. Gotta get dressed, then I'm waiting for the man.


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