So I work as an English tutor, and have worked as an ESL teacher for many years. Every now and then people in these professions encounter a question that provokes us to observe something about language we don't know. Since I've been in this field more or less since the 1990s, that actually doesn't happen very often: most student questions are about grammar points (or mechanical ones, like capitalization and spelling) that I've dealt with a thousand times before, and I can whip out a spiel without thinking. But on Wednesday, near the end of my shift, around 5:45PM, in reviewing questions from a diagnostic test provided to students by a different department, I encountered a sentence that challenged what I thought was a general truth, something taken for granted: that you hyphenate compound adjectives before a noun.
I will get to Nomeansno (and Mudhoney) presently, but you have to understand: this observation excited me.
Consider this sentence: "We spoke to the high-level executive." The compound adjective is, in this case, "high-level." You need to hyphenate it because without the hyphen, "high" (here an adverb, modifying level) could also be an adjective, and you could be talking about a "level" (in the sense of calm, stable) executive who also happened to be high (a comma would be unnecessary, but you could perhaps write this as a high, level executive, if that helps you see what I mean; the hyphen helps prevent this misreading). An example on this page also gives a fun example of the distinction between "a man eating alligator" ("I've never seen a man eating THAT before") vs. a "man-eating alligator." No ambiguity is possible if the compound comes at the end of a sentence ("That alligator is man eating" and "That executive is high level") so hyphens aren't necessary there, though I don't think anyone would assert that they're wrong. They're just not important. But before a noun, the hyphen guards against confusion.
However, I discovered on Wednesday that a bunch of people out there -- prescriptivists; people whose approach to language centers on asserting rules, rather than describing common practice -- do generally say that you should not hyphenate a compound adjective when the first word is an adverb that ends in -ly. Do not hyphenate in the case of "highly placed," for example, wherever it may appear: "He is a highly placed executive," say. It means the same thing, as high- level, nd it's still a compound adjective, but by virtue of the -ly, there is no danger of misunderstanding, so there is no hyphen needed, and some would say the hyphen is even wrong. Which is a rule I had not encountered before, and seems extremely nitpicky. I would argue the hyphen is not "incorrect," just unnecessary.
Questions arose, primarily, even if you COULD omit the hyphen, why the hell would anyone teach that you should NOT hyphenate -- not that it's merely unnecessary, but actually incorrect? Someone formulated this rule for a reason, but what? I would guess that the problem here is that it is actually sometimes quite tricky to determine whether a compound adjective is actually a compound adjective ("highly placed" is clearly a compound adjective; you need both parts to make it meaningful, as you wouldn't likely go around talking about a "placed executive") or just an adverb and an adjective ("a highly successful executive" for example; no one would even think to hyphenate that).
But what rule is it -- what feature of creating compound adjectives -- that makes it at least TEMPTING to hyphenate them (leaving aside the question of whether it is incorrect or not)...? Why does it read as intuitively okay to talk about a "nicely-made handbag" (even if a bunch of prescriptivists want to get out their red pencils) but not a "lovely blue handbag?" That alligator page above would explain that it's because "nicely made" involves a participle -- that is, "made" is actually constructed out of a verb, the same way that something that confuses you can leave you "confused" -- and, going against the general prescriptivist grain, they authors of that page DO say you should hyphenate these. But there's a slightly confused tutor here, because one has no temptation to hyphenate "slightly confused," and that IS built on a participle, as well ("confused" is as much a participle as "made").
So something more needs to be said, and hopefully something that doesn't involve a further amendment to the rule, which already has its own amendment. It becomes unwieldy to try to explain to students:
1. Hyphenate all compound adjectives if they occur before nouns
2. ...Except when the first part ends in -ly
3. ...Unless that second part is a participle
4. ...Unless that participle is in very common use, as with a "slightly confused Nomeansno fan" or a "terribly bored Mudhoney enthusiast."
If the presence of participles is not enough to formulate an efficient rule-of-thumb here -- and I don't think it is -- we have to get into the actual construction of compound adjectives. One feature that seems compelling as a lead into a theory (though also not probably useful in explaining the point to people who aren't from here) is that in cases where hyphenation is tempting (even if "unnecessary," etc), the adjective without the adverb would seem funny. In adverb + adjective combinations, you could easily omit the adverb in the following sentences, whether participles are involved... :
A slightly damaged watch
A frightfully exciting film
A noticeably broken window
An extremely confused tutor
A highly frustrated student
A charmingly morbid joke
A highly elaborate scheme
A terribly hot day
An extremely sweet candy
A beautifully harmonious piece of music
I don't think ANY of those register as compound adjectives; there's no temptation to hyphenate them (maybe your instincts differ?). And you can just as easily eliminate the adverbs and produce something meaningful - a damaged watch, an exciting film, a broken window, a confused tutor, a morbid joke, an elaborate scheme, a hot day, a sweet candy, a harmonious piece of music. Right? The adverbs add to the meaning, but you can strip them away and the phrases don't seem weird.
But if we eliminate the adverb from the following, what we get DOES look pretty weird:
A beautifully made handbag
A charmingly attired woman
A strangely phrased request
A generously given donation
A nicely written article
There is something about all of these that makes them compound adjectives, above and beyond questions of participle use, which is why they may seem to beg for hyphens. While you can see, at this point, why the prescriptivists might just want to stop thinking about all this and say, "Just don't hyphenate if the first part ends in -ly," But the value of the adverb here is much different from the previous cases: we wouldn't normally go around talking about a "made handbag," an "attired woman," a "phrased request," a "given donation" (unless we mean given in a different way) or a "written article." It makes perfect sense to say "That is a nicely written article" (and looks okay to say, "That is a nicely-written article," prescriptivists be damned). Or we can talk about a "poorly written" article, a "beautifully written article," a "confusingly written article," etc -- the adverb doesn't make a difference. But it seems kind of weird to say, "That is a written article." OF COURSE it's a written article; articles are written. If it were unwritten, would it actually BE an article...? Ditto the rest -- handbags are made. Women are, generally, when in public, attired, requests are phrased, and donations are given, etc. Saying something is a donation IMPLIES that it has been given. "A generously given donation" makes sense, but take away "generously" and the whole sentence seems daft: "That is a given donation" means, simply, "that is a donation." No?
Another observation. The latter compound adjectives can be written in a different word order, which might be key to their construction, since it doesn't apply with the mere adverb-plus-adjective constructions. We can say, "That handbag is made beautifully," "That woman is attired charmingly," "His request was phrased strangely," "That donation was given generously," or "This article is written nicely." We cannot do that with those adverb + adjective combinations: "It is a hot day terribly," "That is a harmonious piece of music beautifully." All this seems key, but I haven't gotten to why, yet...
Anyhoo, there's probably an easy explanation for all this, but sometimes when you encounter a question through the back door -- approaching this not from the point of view of compound adjective construction but hyphenation -- it takes awhile to get clear about what's going on. I will get there eventually. But -- the relevant bit is that I ended up down this rabbithole at 5:45 on Wednesday, interacting with colleagues (PAST our 6pm end-of-workday, I might add) on Teams about it, and it takes me awhile to get to Neptoon by bus, so the Nomeansno/ Mudhoney book signing that I previously wrote about was WELL-underway by the time I squeezed through the doorway.
All photos by Allan MacInnis, except the last one
I still was able to make a few interesting observations:
1. Aaron Chapman, thanks to his recent weight loss, can now fit into his Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy t-shirt (I didn't get a photo). We chatted about the benefits of weight loss in regard ones vintage bamd shirts. Thanks to a couple years of serious illness - not a factor for Chappy, note - I am about 75 pounds lighter than my peak weight (I was pushing 380 at one point!), but I still can't quite squeeze comfortably into my XL Mama shirt (I tried). As I recall, Elizabeth Fischer of the Animal Slaves and Dark Blue World listed being able to fit in her old favourite clothes as about the only bright side to her illness...
But anyhow, Chapman, when I arrived, was actually back in the records area, shopping. I myself went back there, once I pushed through the throng. I guess that when you're media -- when you've interacted with Wright and Turner before, when you know some of what they're going to say, you can just sort of listen to them talking in the background, you know? And I wanted to scratch an itch, right a wrong, and do a nice thing for John in one swell foop.
Y'see, every time I have gone to Neptoon in the last year, I have flipped through the "misc V" rock section to see if a certain underpriced first pressing of All-Night Lotus Party (on Dutch East India), by the Volcano Suns, was still there. I've tried to push it on a few people, including Neptoon's Ben Frith himself ("it's Peter Prescott, the drummer from Mission of Burma!"), but it has remained there for far too long, at the gallingly-low (fuckit, I'm hyphenating it) price of $10. It's a great rock record, and it pains me that the Suns seem to have been forgotten (note: Peter Prescott, since Mission of Burma folded permanently, is now playing guitar/ singing/ writing songs in Minibeast, his new project, whom I'm hoping we'll see in Vancouver at some point; I saw the Volcano Suns once at the Cruel Elephant and was blown away, but won't go into that here. A top ten lifetime concert experience, though).
Anyhow, I had the idea that I would buy that Volcano Suns record for John, gambling that he might be a Mission of Burma fan. I know I saw Tom Holliston at both Mission of Burma concerts I saw, and on one occasion, at Richards on Richards, ranted at him about how Nomeansno should cover "Fun World," to have him reply that they were, in fact, considering doing "Outlaw." I reasoned that if my gift gesture failed, I could press the album on someone else (Tom, say). But John, when I finally presented him with the record, seemed excited by it (he didn't know it -- I think that's the problem; the Volcano Suns just didn't get the exposure MoB did). Mission accomplished!
And it was nice to see Aaron.
2. Once the lineup started, it turns out there sure are more Nomeansno fans in Vancouver than Mudhoney fans! I wonder if that would be the case in Seattle? I am fond of both bands, but much more a Nomeansno, man, myself (thought I have seen Mudhoney three times, including a Hallowe'en show with Nirvana at the Commodore way back when, where I much preferred Mudhoney). I'm not sure how many copies of Jason Lamb's book were at Neptoon, vs. Steve Turner's, but Lamb's book sold out, while Rob was getting Steve to inscribe a small stack of remaining copies of his (still in store, note, in hardcover at $40 per, while supplies last). But the reason I know that more people were there for John and Jason, vs. Steve, is that after about half an hour in line to get stuff signed, I looked over and saw Steve Turner sitting chatting with event moderator Grant Lawrence, with no one at all mobbing him, while John and Jason were stamping and signing, stamping and signing doggedly for a still-long, chatty line (that's the original Nomeansno stamp made, I believe, for the "Wormies" single...).
Kudos and thanks to Rob Frith for actually asking me if I wanted a photo taken. I am not much of a selfie-requester, but that's a fun pic! I think I was the only guy in the room with Compressorhead merch... again, see their bandcamp here (vocals and lyrics by John, very much in Hanson Brothers mode, but 100% performed by programmed robots!).
Now about those compound adjectives...