In this new series, we are exploring the world of adjectives. Last time, we started with a few general rules. Today, eliminating ambiguities.
Good writing is clear and free of ambiguities. Your reader gets your meaning the first time. An adjective that is used as a noun and then used as an adjective can be confusing. Consider:
The Boston Food Bank offers poor relief through food distribution to local food pantries.
Do we mean to say that the Boston Food Bank doesn’t offer adequate relief through food distribution? It’s more likely we mean that the food bank offers relief for the poor. (It’s also likely that the sentence would benefit from a rewrite, but that’s another column.)
Another source of confusion is when a noun that usually follows a preposition is instead used as an adjective:
The research report advocated for criminal awareness.
Is the report advocating that others be aware of criminals or that criminals be more aware?
The research report advocated for awareness of criminals.
The research report advocated for criminals to be aware.
A third confusion comes in with adjective (or adjectival) phrases: which words go together? Your style guide will have specific rules; Chicago has restored its wonderful hyphen chart to the 16th edition (find it at 7.85). But you should know a couple general rules:
- Do the adjectives work as one adjective? Hyphenate.
- Do the adjectives work separately? Don’t hyphenate.
long red gown
- Is the adjective phrase a set open phrase (meaning it doesn’t usually have hyphens and might be found in the dictionary)? Don’t hyphenate.
real estate tycoon
elementary school children
- Does the adjective phrase start with an -ly adverb? Don’t hyphenate. (Really don’t. It drives editors crazy.)
strongly built house
aptly named store
Next up: avoiding adjective pileups.
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