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I was doing some multiple choice exercises. One of them was:-

A fire in the ..... building could be a problem for firefighters

1- Ninety-story-tall

2-ninety-tall-story

3-ninety-stories-tall

4-ninety stories

I wonder, why does 1 work but not 2? What does the sentence mean when we use 1?

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    Why do you believe option 2 could be correct? What would be the meaning of sentence 2, in your opinion? What would be the meaning of sentence 1, in your opinion? – CowperKettle Sep 21 '15 at 16:48
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    @CopperKettle, I don't think that 2 is correct. When I was solving the exercise, I could not figure our the intended meaning and so I couldn't differentiate them. Now as I understand the meaning of 1, I know why it's true. – Fawzy Hegab Sep 21 '15 at 22:17
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The phrase"ninety-story" is a noun phrase. More importantly, it is a measure phrase. We often use measure phrases like this to modify adjectives. The measure phrase always comes before the adjective. Usually, the measure phrase is made from a number and a unit of measurement (a noun). The unit of measurement often measures time or space, but it could be anything:

  • ten-mile-long

  • five-year-old

  • three-metre-wide

  • ninety-storey-tall

These big phrases are adjective phrases. When they come before a noun, the unit of measurement is singular and we use hyphens to join up the words. When they don't have a following noun, for example if they appear after the verb BE, then the unit of measurement can be plural and we don't need hyphens:

  • The island was ten miles long
  • An example of a non space/time measure phrase is a forty-person theater. – Michael Blackburn Dec 7 '15 at 16:25
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The correct one is ninety-story tall.

Tall is an adjective that modifies building.

Ninety-story is an adverb that modifies tall.

Ninety-tall story doesn't make sense because you are selecting modifiers that qualify how tall the building is, not how tall any story is. Story also is not typically an adjective so it is confusing for that reason too.

Ninety-stories and ninety-stories tall are wrong because only nouns have plural forms in English. Adjectives/adverbs do not. So "ninety-stories" tall sounds like an additional noun for a brief moment until the speaker/reader gets to the word "building" and figures out what you meant.

Incidentally, you could say:

A fire in the ninety-story building could be a problem for firefighters

and that would be OK.

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