In looking at some long, hyphenated adjectives in English (or this), you find:

  • a twenty-one-gun salute
  • a five-acre farm
  • a five-day week
  • the four-colour problem
  • the low milk-and-cream-yielding dam
  • the pay-as-you-go plan
  • a life-and-death struggle
  • the aircraft-carrier-oriented virtual-reality area

The general rule seems to be, hyphenate everything up to the last word. But when speaking, there is no notice of a hyphenation, it's kind of just the way you say it I guess? Either way, I'm wondering if any languages are more precise than this, or otherwise mark the adjectives in a more verbose way, either with particles or word morphology changes.

Also related question, some of these words which you can hyphenate are themselves derived from simpler words, like "milk-and-cream-yielding" (which is basically "milk" + "and" + "cream" + "yield" + "[currently active particle]"), so in some sense you have nesting. Another example would be "aircraft-carrier-oriented" (which is basically "air" + "craft" + "carry" + "[er]" + "orient" + "[ed]", so it has a few 2-level nested areas (aircraft, carry-er, orient-ed)). Do any languages keep track of this nesting with any markers in any way, and does the nested stop with only 2 levels (top level and one level of nesting)?

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    I doubt you’ll find many languages that would happen to treat all those examples as adjectival phrases. Romance languages, for example, would make external adjuncts or relative clauses out of most of them (a salute of 21 guns, the problem of the four colours, the dam who yields little milk and cream), and even other Germanic languages would for some of them (a struggle of life and death, the virtual reality-area oriented towards aircraft carriers), while others could be reshaped as unhyphenated compounds (a twentyonegunssalute, a fivedaysweek, the aircraftcarrieroriented virtualrealityarea). Dec 14, 2021 at 8:36

1 Answer 1


The short answer is that most languages don't treat these all as adjectives.

Note that many of these are actually nouns used as modifiers in English. For these, Bantu and Japanese would generally use a special construction to join nouns (a week of five days, a farm of five acres, a salute of 21 guns). Latin and Greek would either use case marking, special adjective-deriving suffixes, or compounding (the fourcolorious problem, a fivedays).

Others are full clauses that have been turned into participial phrases in English. Some languages love these sorts of participles, like Ancient Greek, which generally prefers participles over relative clauses when possible. Other languages, e.g. many Romance languages, prefer relative clauses for these: the dam that yields low milk and cream, the plan which you pay for as you go, the area that is oriented toward aircraft carriers. It's a common axiom that every language's grammar supports relative clauses.

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