Should I use hyphens or quotation marks to modify a noun?

For example,

  • a what-did-I-do-last-night hangover


  • a "what did I do last night" hangover

Which one is/are correct? Is there any difference between them?

  • I would consider quotes only if the phrasal adjective is intended as dialog. A "what did I do last night" hangover or a "please don't yell at me" look on his face might be okay. A "little celebrated" painting is wrong.
    – Kaia
    Apr 19 at 1:10
  • @Kaia "dialog"? What do you mean? a conversation or a discussion?
    – Xonela
    Apr 19 at 8:30
  • Not necessarily a conversation, but a phrase or clause that someone would say or think to themselves. "What did I do last night" is something you might think to yourself when you have a really bad hangover. "Little celebrated", by itself, isn't something you'd think or say when looking at a painting, so you should always use the hyphen there.
    – Kaia
    Apr 19 at 17:16
  • I would use hyphens for that.
    – John Douma
    Apr 20 at 13:57
  • This phenomenon is very interesting in English and has a name and explanation which apparently no one here is interested in. That said, using hypens in phrases preceding nouns is something that one finds, to a greater or lesser extent, is many kinds of writing.
    – Lambie
    Apr 22 at 14:15

2 Answers 2


Neither is appropriate in a formal setting, such as an essay for school or a language test. You should paraphrase "a terrible hangover and I couldn't remember what I'd been doing the night before"

In an informal setting you could use either. There is no formal rule to follow.

  • You are right, thanks. But I wonder why it is not appropriate in a formal setting. Because what-did-I-do-last-night consists of a full sentence? We sometimes use phrases like shoot-to-kill policy, out-of-work miner or blue-eyed girl
    – Xonela
    Apr 18 at 20:56
  • Generally English places complex modifiers after the head word. For example, relative clauses follow the noun. Single adjectives are an exception, as are some phrases like "shoot-to-kill". More formal English should use the formal constructions of relative clauses and so on, rather than place complex modifiers before the noun.
    – James K
    Apr 18 at 21:07
  • Can you say what you think about "little-celebrated paintings"? Would that also be inappropriate on a language test? This is neither a single adjective nor a fixed phrase
    – Xonela
    Apr 18 at 21:13
  • 1
    that is very different, since you are just forming a compound of a adverb-adjective. It is not like using a whole sentence like what-did-I-do-last-night as a compound
    – James K
    Apr 18 at 21:27
  • 1
    @StuartF Didn't you read my answer? I posted an entire scholarly article on this subject. This is an off-the-mark answer. It doesn't even name what this is.
    – Lambie
    Apr 19 at 15:17


Hyperextension of adjectives is not two or even three. They are longer phrases and sometimes even a full sentence used as a prepositioned adjective. AKA multiple hyphen compound adjective

Here are two examples from an academic paper:
Hawking Hyphens in Compound Modifiers. This paper is worth the read.

abstract: Abstract

The first principle of legal writing is surely its clarity — visible actors (unless the action matters more), uncluttered syntax, and, of course, logical structure. But the little things can matter to clarity, too — such as deliberate punctuation that signifies. In the language of law, in which compound nouns are rife, the reader can feel adrift as to where modifiers end and the noun begins. (Consider government-subsidized health flexible-spending arrangement without those hyphens.) Hyphens help. Whether an author cares to hyphenate the noun is his call; but hyphenating compound modifiers (also called phrasal adjectives, though they may include adverbs — more-abundant paperclips) follows a logic that is worth learning. This essay describes that logic. But its pitch is that legal writing, of all writing disciplines, should practice a deliberate, consistent use of such hyphens, rather than the more-relaxed practice readers see in less-formal writing (whose effects, of course, are usually also less consequential).

There are limits, of course, to how far a compound stitched with hyphens can stretch. Brian Garner dubs such hyperextension “snakelike compounds,” and suggests “rework[ing] the sentence.”32 Exceptions are compounds crafted tongue in cheek, such as Fred Rodell’s typology of footnotes: “There is the explanatory or if-you-didn’t-understand-what-I-said-in-the-text-this-may-help-you type. And there is the probative or if-you’re-from-Missouri-just-take-a-look-at-all-this type.”33


Extremes and exceptions aside, the point is this: Hyphenating two or more words that precede the noun they modify facilitates the read and is the approved practice by a majority of those who weigh in on the subject. It is “never incorrect. [See the Chicago Manual of Style]

Extended adjectives

So, that gives us: He has committed I-don't-know-how-many crimes. It is an example of a hyperextended adjective.

This type of hyperextension is found, yes, in comical texts but is also fairly common in speech. And therefore, in plays and scripts.

Examples I have just made up:

She is not a for-better-or-for worse woman.
They are not but-I-don't-want-to-Mommy kids.
We are definitely the hold-your-nose-and-do-it people in this kind of situation.

And here is one I just found online in a formal text:

The second point is that the Protestant British (God bless them!1) undermined and obstructed the Catholic enterprise here; and, more tragically, the Anglo-American Catholicism that came with the Maryland colonizers was a weak, timid, all-too-impressed-with-their-fellow-countrymen-who-were-heretics type of religion. I shall save that second point, with its too-long hyphenated adjective, for another time. Now I would like to focus on the first point, our too-secret Catholic history.


[All bolding is mine. I fully expect posters to post ones of their own under this answer. Perhaps they have ones that are more germane and funnier.]

This is an answer I posted on ELL. (It received 4 upvotes.) And extending adjectives or hyperextending them is sometimes used in magazine articles or even academic papers if warranted.

[not from the other answer]

Dartmouth College

In a limited way, English permits some extension of this modifier (with, or sometimes without, a hyphen), so that we can talk about "a little-known fact," "a long-awaited response," "his yet-to-be-written book," "a soon-to-be-forgotten boyfriend," "a back-stabbing boot-licker," "The English-Speaking Peoples' Union, or " her often-missing husband."

Longer extensions, however, are not standard and at best lead to comical formulations. The basketball-player Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins used this to effect when assigning names to his spectacular dunks. After dunking over Bill Robinzine and smashing the glass backboard in the process, he called that action The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Glass-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Babies-Crying, Glass-Still-Flying, Cats-Crying, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Thank You-Wham-Bam-I-Am-Jam.

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