GrammarPhile Blog

Comma Drama, Hyper-Hyphenation, and Smelling Salts

Posted by Yashmyn Jackson   Aug 9, 2018 7:30:00 AM

analyzing-3385076_640Brenda, Raj, Tom, and Vickie were still reveling in the success of their dusting caps ad campaign. No, the dusting caps hadn’t been the blockbuster success that the executives at Awesome Products, Inc., had thought they would be. (How could the consumer research department have known that bonnets that were topped with ostrich feathers and marketed primarily to tall men interested in easing their spouses’ dusting chores, wouldn’t sell like hotcakes?) But the quartet’s grammatically correct marketing slogan had been a smash hit with the industry associations that presented awards for excellence in advertising.

As a reward, their supervisor, Noelle, handed Tom a gift certificate to share with the group, just before dashing into a meeting concerning the company’s newest product to be launched: fluorescent smelling salts.

The four of them were sitting in the conference room. Tom passed the certificate to Raj, who read it then handed it to Vickie, who noted the web address then passed the certificate to Brenda. It read, “As a reward for your excellent service, please enjoy an early-bird special at this darling family-owned restaurant that just opened at First and Main. That should give you plenty of time to get to the 1 p.m. debriefing meeting on smelling salts.”

Some gifts are for the birds

Brenda passed the certificate back to Tom, who peered at it and said, “You know, I think Noelle inserted two hyphens that shouldn’t be there.” Tom always appreciated opportunities such as this one to bond with people. Any good salesman looked for and took advantage of such moments.

Raj, already thinking up ideas for pitching smelling salts, responded, “Well, actually, the hyphens are okay there. In both those terms.”

“What do you mean, okay in both those terms? I remember very clearly what you told me during our last brainstorming session. You said—” Tom stopped to clear his throat. “And I believe I’m quoting here: ‘You don’t add a hyphen after an adverb that ends in ‘ly.’ Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s what you said.” He looked around the room. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only quoting back to you what you told me.”

[Note to readers: Find Raj’s exact words in this post.]

“While you’re not quoting me, you are paraphrasing quite well,” Raj said, keeping any and all eye-rolling out of his voice. “But I wonder whether you were comprehending as well as you were listening.” That made Tom sit up straight. Raj continued, “I said you don’t add a hyphen after an adverb that’s formed by adding ‘ly’ to an adjective. Right?”

Tom remembered, “Oh, right. That is closer to what you actually said.”

Brenda was hungry and wanted this conversation to end already. She tried to hurry things along by asking, “Tom, where in Noelle’s note do you see an adverb that ends in ‘ly’?”

Tom wondered for a moment whether he was in an alternate universe. “You and I both see two of them. ‘Early’ and ‘fam—’ Wait a minute.” He narrowed his eyes in accusation at Brenda, Raj, and (for good measure) Vickie, who didn’t notice because, even hungrier than Brenda, she was looking up the restaurant’s menu on her smartphone. He finally said, “‘Family’ is definitely not an adverb. It’s a noun.”

Even though “adverb” is a six-letter word, not every six-letter word is an adverb (obviously)

“That’s right,” Raj said. “‘Family’ is not an adverb. It is a noun. So the rule you repeated back to me just now doesn’t apply here.”

“Okay, fine.” Tom eyed the gift certificate again before looking back up at Raj. “Well, ‘early’ is definitely an adverb. As in, ‘I get to work early every morning.’”

Raj chuckled, saying, “Yes, agreed. In the sentence, ‘You leave work early every afternoon,’ the word ‘early’ is an adverb. But two things. One, is the word formed by adding ‘ly’ to an adjective?” He stopped, waiting for Tom to respond.

Tom sighed. “No, it’s not.”

Raj continued, “And two, are you sure it’s serving as an adverb in this sentence at all?” An uncharacteristically deflated Tom murmured, “No, I guess I’m not. That is, it’s not. It’s more of an adjective, isn’t it? Modifying ‘bird’?”

That was when Brenda took pity on Tom. (Of course, she also always enjoyed any opportunity to burst Raj’s bubble.) She chirped, “Tom, you’re giving up way too soon. I think there’s still a case for removing the hyphen after ‘early.’”

She saw with great satisfaction that this seemed to both perk Tom up and cause Raj to frown. “That’s right. Remember what the main purpose of the hyphen is in situations like this, where the hyphenated word is not in the dictionary. It’s to clarify the relationship between adjacent words. Oh, ‘adjacent’ means—”

“C’mon, I know what ‘adjacent’ means. It means ‘next to each other.’”

“Right. So the hyphen is used to show the exact connection between words that are next to each other. With ‘family-owned’—a word that’s not in the dictionary—the hyphen shows that ‘family’ and ‘owned’ combine to form a compound modifier describing the restaurant.”

“Describing the vegan restaurant,” Vickie contributed, still studying her phone’s screen.

Compound, schmom-pound

The other three digested that information before Tom spoke up again. “Hey, Brenda, feel free to define ‘compound modifier’ if you want.”

Brenda said, “Oh, sure. That’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time. Basically, a compound modifier is two or more words that are grouped together to describe a noun. Like “incredibly tall” or “stupid-rich” in that one brainstorming conversation we had, if you’ll remember.”

Tom nodded in the affirmative.

“Or, here, ‘family-owned.’”

Raj interrupted. “Yes, yes. But what does that have to do with ‘early-bird’ not needing a hyphen in ‘early-bird special’?”

Brenda savored this moment. “Remember, the reason hyphens are used in some compound modifiers is to make clear that they really are read together as compound modifiers, right? Well, what’s the likelihood that someone’s going to read ‘early bird special’—without a hyphen in ‘early bird’—as anything other than a special for early birds?”

Tom immediately caught on, turning his chair just slightly so that now he and Brenda were both facing Raj. “That’s right,” he said to Raj. “It’s not like people are going to run around thinking there are all these specials for birds, and some of the specials are late and others are early.”

Brenda chuckled, “That’s right. So ‘early bird special’ needs no hyphen. Now, I’m going to generalize a little bit. You’ll find in many compound modifiers, if the second word in the compound—such as ‘bird’ in this one—is a noun, the compound modifier probably doesn’t need a hyphen.”

Tom gloated, “So what do you think, Raj?”

Raj considered Tom, then rose from his chair and walked to a whiteboard. Uncapping a dry erase marker, he wrote on the board: “Lovely-smelling salts” and, just underneath that, “Lovely smelling salts.”

He asked Tom in return, “What do you think?”

It’s really just common “scents”

Tom recognized this opportunity to bond with the team again. Taking a deep breath, he thought, Here goes nothing. “Well, ‘lovely’ is not an adverb, first of all. It’s an adjective. So the don’t-hyphenate-adverbs-that-are-created-by-adding-‘ly’-to-an-adjective rule doesn’t apply.”

“I’m impressed, Tom,” Raj replied. “You weren’t tricked into thinking that ‘lovely’ is an adverb. Proceed, professor.”

Much to Brenda’s amusement, Tom couldn’t keep the pleasure off his face. (A sincere compliment from Raj was high praise indeed.)

“Okay, so the two lines definitely mean different things. The first one means that the salts smell lovely. So I’m sure you’re not suggesting it for the ad campaign.” Raj and Brenda both winced a little. Tom had a point. (Even though the company was impatient to strategize a marketing plan for the smelling salts, there were still some product development hurdles to overcome. That is, even though the salts did what they were supposed to do—revive people who had fallen into a faint—the salts had a certain odor. When people woke up, they’d bang their heads back down on the floor to get away from the smell, it was so bad. A couple of test subjects had already filed exploratory lawsuits against the company for damages resulting from concussions. But the executives had already sunk a lot of money into development of the product, and they weren’t going to let a little litigation slow things down.)

Raj said, “More points to you.”

Tom looked at the board again and continued, “The second line means that the smelling salts are lovely. It doesn’t make any claims concerning how they smell.” He raised an eyebrow at Raj. “You know, the salts are fluorescent.” He pointed at the board. “That might not be a bad start.”

Putting her phone away, Vickie rose and said, “Well, if we don’t leave now, I’ll need smelling salts. I’m about to pass out from hunger. Let’s go!”

As they all left the room, Tom hit them with the joke he’d been wanting to make ever since he first saw the certificate. “Guys, what do you call a gift certificate for an early bird special?”

Brenda, Raj, and Vickie responded simultaneously, “‘Cheep, cheep,’ cheap!”


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Topics: hyphenation, hyphen

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