Questions on Adjectives

Question (From a publishing company): Is it traditionally and technically correct, when someone asks "How are you?" to reply "I am good," or is the correct response "I am well"?

I was told by a linguistics professor in college that feeling good refers to the quality of oneís health or mental state and feeling well refers to the quality of oneís sense of touch. Is this true? If so, why? If not, why not?

Answer: The traditional and technically correct response to "How are you?" is "I am fine, and how are you?" The latter question is posed to the retreating back of the original questioner, who never sticks around for the answer.

In the context of the question "How are you?", the choice between good and well depends on whether the inquiry is about your health or your general mental state. James Brown feels good¾ and heís not just talking about his health. A hypochondriac who wins a lottery might feel good, but he never feels well.

I imagine that your linguistics teacher was talking about the use of good and well outside the context of discussions of health. In such contexts, feel takes an adjective (good) when it is an intransitive verb, and an adverb (well) when it is an action verb. Thus:

I feel good about winning the lottery.


To find my loose change, I felt well under the car seat.

Question: When you are writing a story using numbers, is the rule to spell out anything under ten or anything ten and under? For example, which is correct?

I have 10 fingers.


I have ten fingers.

Answer: The application of this rule depends on the stylebook you are using. The Associated Press Stylebook (for newspaper editing) says this: "Spell out whole numbers below 10, use figures for 10 and above." As you point out, the number 10 is critical. It is easier to apply this rule if you simply remember that the only spelled out numbers are single digits. Thus, in AP style: "I have 10 fingers."

The Chicago Manual of Style (for book and academic editing) recommends spelling out numbers up to 100 (three digits). Thus, in Chicago style: "I have ten fingers."

If by story you mean "newspaper story," use AP style. If you mean "literary short story," use Chicago. I am not optimistic about your chances of publishing the sentence "I have 10/ten fingers" in either genre.

Question (From the Internet): The menu at my favorite pizzeria reads: "Items with a * are $2 extra." My question is: When you are writing text that includes a symbol, how do you choose the article that precedes the symbol?

Answer: My sources have failed me, so Iím flying on pure instinct. Choose the article based on how you think the reader will read the text. The * example is difficult, but we can scale some examples from easy to difficult.

At the easy end of the scale are alphabet letters, which everyone recognizes and knows how to pronounce:

an S curve

a T-shirt

an A on the examination.

In the moderate range are common punctuation marks and symbols about which there is broad-based agreement:

an !

a ?

a #.

Most difficult are symbols for which there is more than one name: an * (if we read it "asterisk"); a * (if we read it "star"); a / (regardless of whether we read it "slash," "virgule," or "solidus").

Then too, there are symbols that do not have common names. Change something youíve written on a word processor into the Wingding font for some quick examples. Since the reader processes an ideogram as a symbol only, there would be no reason based on pronunciation to alter "a" to "an" before an ideogram.

Language changes, of course. Some symbols that used to have common names have lost them or changed them. There are a couple of possible explanations for the "a *" on the pizza menu. The pizzeria proprietor may believe that * is called not an "asterisk," but a "star." Alternatively, he may think that his customers will read * as an ideogram.

No one really knows the answer. Not even the artist formerly known as Prince.

Question: In print, which is correct:

a N.C. team


an N.C. team?

Answer: This question is harder than it looks. The conventional answer is that you should choose the article based on pronunciation. The fly in the ointment, however, is that few readers ever sound out "N.C." in silent reading. Itís too familiar.

You have to do something, however. Under the circumstances, the better part of valor is to opt for consistency. Most stylebooks recommend an N.C. team. This presumes a reader who moves his lips while reading the sports pageóa depressing prospect, but one that cannot be cured by grammar.

Question: Before many questions that are asked, you tell who is asking the question. For example: (From "an" N.C. State editing student). My question is why do you use "an" before N.C.?

Answer: "An" is used before a pronounced "En," and folks around here usually call the university "En Cee State."

Question (From a foreign student): In the phrase, "the salt spray stinging my face and a feeling of exhilaration in my heart," is the phrase stinging my face adjectival or adverbial?

Answer: This participial phrase is adjectival.

Question 2: In the participle "seeming to enjoy the buffeting she received," what is the function of "to enjoy the buffeting she received"? Is it adverbial or is it a subjective complement? I know that seem is an intransitive verb and cannot take object, but can it be possible that it is a direct object? Similarly, in the sentence "He seemed to know what he was about," what is "to know what he was about"? Adverb? Direct object?

Answer: The infinitive phrases complete the intransitive verb seem. They modify the agents of the clauses, and are thus adjectival. They do not receive the action of the verb, which is why they cannot be direct objects.

Question (From a community college administrator): I would very much appreciate any grammatical information about the capitalization of compound adjectives when they appear in a capitalized list.

For example, I have a list of areas of knowledge needed in a particular field of study. I have capitalized each item in the list, but what do I do with a compund adjective like "hands-on applications"?

Should it appear as "Hands-on Applications" or "Hands-On Applications"?

Answer: I recommend following the guidelines for capitalizing titles of works as outlined in the Chicago Manual of Style, 7.124:

How to capitalize hyphenated compounds in titles is often a question. A rule of thumb that usually proves satisfactory is (1) always capitalize the first element and (2) capitalize the second element if it is a noun or proper adjective or if it has eq ual force with the first element.

Twentieth-Century Literature




Do not capitalize the second element if (a) it is a participle modifying the first element or (b) both elements constitute a single word.

English-speaking People

Medium-sized Library

E-flat Minor


Self-sustaining Reaction

Applying this rule to the example you give yields "Hands-on Applications."

This is because on is neither a noun nor a proper adjective; it is a prepositionóor, more properly, a particle. In addition, hands-on constitutes a single word.

Question 2: If I have a capitalized list of compound adjectives in which I am trying to follow the rules (Chicago Manual of Style) for the capitalization of compound adjectives in titles, what should I do with an item that has two compound adjectives separated by a slash? For example:


Is it correct to capitalize the "t" in Training because it is the last element, and is it correct to lowercase the "s" in Skilled because Multi is a prefix?

Answer: I would have to quibble with your reasons. The Chicago rule does not recommend capitalizing every last element, and it does not recommend lowercasing all root words just because they have prefixes. In general, Chicago (7.124) recommends this: (1) Always capitalize the first element; (2) Capitalize the second element if it is a noun or proper adjective or if it has equal force with the first element.

This rule generates "Cross-Training" because Training is a noun. (Actually, itís a gerund, which is a noun formed from a verb.)

This rule generates "Multi-skilled" because skilled is neither a noun nor a proper adjective, and it does not have equal force with the first element. Rather, skilled is an adjective. (Actually, itís a past participle, which is an adjective formed from a verb.) Furthermore, the word "Multi-skilled" is less a compound than it is a simple multi-part word.

And having said all that, I must now break your heart by telling you that strict application of the Chicago rules is not always going to produce the best editorial product. The Chicago rules do indeed produce "Multi-skilled/Cross-Training." But you need to look beyond the rules to the reasons they were made: To produce consistency, and to eliminate distractions for the reader.

The soundest editorial stance is to follow the rules in general, but feel free to break them if the product is inconsistent or might distract the reader. "Multi-skilled/Cross-Training" looks funny. We could search for reasons for thisómaybe itís because the two elements are not parallel (oneís an adjective and the other is a noun), but thereís not much use in making things more complicated than they already are. Something that looks funny violates the most fundamental editorial principle of all: Donít distract the reader.

In short, if I were in charge of this project, I would capitalize Skilled.

Question (From the Internet): Which is correct?

The students visited Barton Springs, a 900-foot-long by 100-foot-wide natural springs pool.


The students visited Barton Springs, a 900-feet-long by 100-feet-wide natural springs pool.

Answer: Letís start with what the handbooks say about this. According to Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage: "The plurals feet and foot both occur between a number and an adjective. ¼ In present-day American printed use, feet is more common that foot, and is prescribed by many handbooks. Foot seems to be more frequent in print in British English. In speech, foot is common in both varieties."

Well. How about that? That wasnít very helpful, was it? It would be easy to throw up our hands in despair, but the Grammar Hotline is fortunately of very sturdy stock. I know that feet sounds like itís the only possible plural. But I also know t hat foot historically can appear in this context as a plural, and furthermore that itís common. In my dialect (Iím from Ohio), I think most people would say foot.

I therefore recommend that you follow your ear and choose the more colloquial (but nevertheless historically accurate) foot.

Be careful, though. Foot is correct only if it is part of an adjective phrase. If itís a noun, choose feet. Think of it this way: "Five foot two, eyes of blue, but oh, what those five feet can do. . . . " The first use is an adjective. The second is a noun.

Question: I am writing an article about a mural thatís recently been painted in one of the buildings where I work, and Iím not sure how to write the dimensions. The mural covers two walls that are separated by a large window, i.e. not a continuo us painting, but more like two separate paintings. They are each 15 x 23 feet. The AP Stylebook says "15 feet by 23 feet" or "15-by-23." Neither seems right in this case. I currently have "the mural, which covers two 15 x 2 3 foot walls." What do you think?

Answer: I think you ought to stick with the AP Stylebook and spell out by. I think you have misread the AP Stylebook in thinking that you have to delete the word feet (or foot). The only example they give with such a deletion in "9-by-12 rug," which deletes the measurement unit only because it is colloquially left out.

Finally, I think you need to insert hyphens in a compound modifier before a noun. Thus: "15-by-23-foot walls," or "walls measuring 15-by-23 feet."

Donít be discouraged. This is hard. The base principle, of course, is to be consistent. I canít see that the format is going to interfere with communication, so donít let the format dictate wording. Make a choice and be consistent.

Question: "All trucks over 14 foot must exit." Is this the correct usage of the word foot? How about "I need a two foot piece of cable"?

Answer: These phrases vary according to regional preferences, but in general most Americans use foot when the word is embedded in an adjectival clause placed directly before a noun, and feet when the word is placed in isolation, either in a prepositional phrase or in the predicate.

These rules generate:

All trucks over 14 feet must exit.

I need a two-foot piece of cable."

Question: Which is correct:

a surprising new way


a surprisingly new way

Answer: It depends. What do you find surprising?

Do you find it surprising that the way is new? If so, it would be correct to say "a surprisingly new way." This is because surprisingly modifies the adjective new, and is therefore an adverb.

Do you find it surprising that there is another way? If so, it would be correct to say "a surprising new way." This is because surprising modifies the noun way, and is therefore an adjective.

This was a surprising new question to the Grammar Hotline.

Question: In this sentence, should the word used be lower-case or lower-cased?

The sentence begins with a lower-case letter.

Answer: Lowercase is the usual choice. In this construction, the word lowercase is an adjective. The complication is that lowercase can also be a verb. Verbs, of course, can add endings to form adjectives ("-ing" in the present tense; "-ed" in the past tense). Adjectives formed from verbs are called participles.

The only reason to use a participle, however, is when no other adjectival form exists. In this case, an adjectival form does exist, and anyone who is familiar with it would use it.

Please note that lowercase is not hyphenated.

Question: I have the sentence, "This indicates a task that will be mastered at the vocational center level." Should I follow the rule for compound adjectives preceding a noun and hyphenate it to read "vocational-center level"? Is vocational center really functioning as a compound adjective in this case?

Answer: Compound adjectives are hyphenated before nouns to avoid ambiguity. But ambiguity, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, your punctuation decision depends on the degree to which your targeted audience is familiar with the term vocational center.

The possible ambiguity is this: Is the "level" "vocational-center," or is the "center level" "vocational"? If I were reading this, Iíd need the hyphen. In an enclosed community where everyone knows the names of things, the hyphen is probably not needed.

Compound modifiers are never hyphenated when they appear in positions other than directly before nouns. This is because no possibility of ambiguity exists--and it suggests a way to reconfigure your prose. How much do you really need the word level? Can you cut to the chase and write: "This indicates a task that will be mastered at the vocational center."

This wording has the advantage of putting the emphasis on vocational center, which is probably where you want it.

I canít tell what this sentence is about, but it seems as though it is directing the readerís attention to a graphic element that highlights a list. If thatís not the main purpose of the sentence, it would be nice to simplify the clause structure to: "This task will be mastered at the vocational center."

Question (From a non-native speaker): I have a question on the use of noun adjectives, or whatever the right term is. For example: We call the head of a department in universities department head. Why isnít it departmental head? If there were a phrase as departmental head, what would it mean?

On the other hand, we say presidential suite rather than president suite. Why? Also, which one is correct: government officials or governmental officials? Why?

Answer: Oh dear. Iím afraid that youíve stumbled into an area of language where the only reason "why" is "because thatís the way itís conventionally done."

As your examples show, however, you can develop an instinct for this. Noun forms that are used directly as adjectives can often be converted to prepositional phrases using the word of. Thus, head of the department or official of the government. In a declined language, these might be expressed in the genitive case. They indicate a relationship of possessor or source.

On the other hand, nouns that are converted to adjectives by adding suffixes like "-al" or "-ic" indicate a more tangential relationship. A presidential suite doesnít belong to the president; it is the kind of suite a president might use. Thus, it takes on attributes without actually belonging.

You ask what a departmental head might be. My guess would be: somebody who is the head of an organization that is not actually called a department, but is at the same level as a department on an organizational chart. I donít think anybody would want to be called this. It comes with a vaguely perceptible sneer.

Government official, rather than governmental official, follows this pattern. I have no doubt, however, that we could come up with another half dozen examples that break the mold. Nouns are labels, and labels are assigned by labelers, who all have their quirks. This is what keeps the English language alive, excitingóand sometimes overwhelmingly frustrating.

Question (From an N.C. State staff member): Should I use the term emeritus or emeriti with faculty in a brochure a heading for a list of retired faculty? I know that emeritus is singular and emeriti, plural, but donít know if the singular or plural form should be used. I also donít know if Faculty should be the first word or Emeritus/Emeriti the first word. Should it be Emeritus Faculty, or Faculty Emeriti?

Answer: Your instincts are right, but you need to make an adjustment for the different parts of speech. As a noun, emeritus is the singular and emeriti the plural. As an adjective, emeritus is the only form in current use.

In the phrase emeritus faculty, emeritus is an adjective, so it should have a "-us" ending.

My only hesitation in urging you to use this common form is that I donít know what kind of brochure you are producing. If all the other headings are in Latin and follow the Latin practice of matching the endings on adjectives in gender, number, and case with the nouns they modify, you might opt for a Latinate ending in the name of parallelism. On the other hand, if that were the case, surely faculty would be in Latin as well.

Question (From an N.C. State faculty member): Please help settle an argument. Which is correct?

a hypothesis -or-

an hypothesis

Answer: I recommend a hypothesis.

The relevant rule in the Chicago Manual of Style is 6.60:

Such forms as an historical study or an union are not idiomatic in American English. Before a pronounced "h," long "u" (or "eu"), and such a word as one, the indefinite article should be "a":

a hotel

a euphonious word

a historical study

such a one

a union


an honor

an heir

This opens the question of differences between American and British English. The British are less likely to pronounce "h" than are Americans, and a case could be made that an historical is, in fact, idiomatic in some dialects of British English.

The example you give, however, is not very complicated. As far as I know, the "h" is regularly pronounced in hypothesis on both sides of the pond. Or at least thatís my hypothesis.

Which side of the controversy are you supporting?

Question: In the following sentence, what part of speech is the word nauseating?

Smoking grass can be nauseating.

Answer: In this context, nauseating is an adjective. To be more specific, it is a present participle that acts in this sentence as an adjectival predicate complement modifying the gerundive smoking grass.

Question (From an N.C. State faculty member): Should words beginning with "h" use the indefinite article "a" or "an", as in a historic occasion or an historic occasion?

Answer: The Chicago Manual of Style (6.49) notes that:

Before a pronounced "h," long "u" (or "eu"), and such a word as "one," the indefinite article should be "a."

Chicago gives the following examples: a hotel; a historical study, a euphonious word, such a one, a union, BUT an honor, and an heir.

More interesting is its lead-in comment: "Such forms as an historical study or an union are not idiomatic in American English." Ha! This is clearly a case of "Methinks the manual doth protest too much." Writers wonder about this form precisely because they have heard it¾ which, of course, means that it is idiomatic. To choose what to do, you need to think about the reason for grammar rules, which I believe is this: To enable writers to use language in such a way that readers will concentrate on content rather than on format. If you reason through the problem starting from that principle, youíll decide to follow the Chicago rule. The forms it generates are more familiar, and therefore more invisible. After all, few writers want to draw attention to an indefinite article.

Question (From the Internet): Following the example of The New Yorker, I like to use the alphabet for most numbers. This raises the question of when (and why) to hyphenate. For example, what should I do with these?

Answer: Stylebooks differ on their recommendations as to when a writer should abandon spelled-out numbers and move to an arabic format.

Stylebooks for publications with short deadlines and narrow column widths usually move to arabic when numbers are two digits or more (at number 10; q.v., The AP Stylebook and Libel Manual).

Stylebooks for publications with longer deadlines and wider column widths often recommend moving to arabic either when numbers begin to be hyphenated (at number 21) or when they are three digits or more (at number 100; q.v., The Chicago Manual of Style).

As you note, many numbers under 100 are hyphenated in their spelled-out form: 21-29; 31-39; ¼ 91-99 are hyphenated in any position in a sentence. Other spelled-out numbers are hyphenated only when they qualify as a compound modifier that stands before a noun.

You are noticing hyphens in compound modifiers and are mistaking them for hyphens in numbers. In the example you give, "one-hundred dollars" is hyphenated because "one-hundred" is a compound adjective standing before "dollars." There would be no hyphen in "He lived to be one hundred." Similarly, we hyphenate "a thirty-three-year-old man" rather liberally, but are much more conservative about "The man was thirty-three years old ."

The reason for hyphenating compound modifiers before nouns is to eliminate ambiguity. The hyphen helps the reader figure out what attaches to what. When the phrase stands in isolation, such help isnít needed.

It would take me a while to explain hyphenation of compound modifiers adequately, but hyphenation of numbers is fairly straightforward. You seem to want to adopt a literary style. If so, the rules are to spell out all numbers up to ninety-nine, and to use arabic for numbers 100 and over, unless they are round numbers used casually. In this style, no number is hyphenated unless it is embedded in a compound modifier that stands before a noun.

I know this seems terribly complicated. Does it comfort you to know that it is generally considered the most complicated and perverse issue in editorial style?

Question (From the Internet): Hereís a sentence from a standardized test (a practice version of the U.S. Foreign Service exam):

The candidate directed *her appeal*[A] to the young once *realizing that*[B] *she could not win*[C] *without their votes.*[D]

Each of the asterisked phrases may be an error, or there may be no error in the sentence. If there is an error, the student is to select the asterisked part that must be changed to make the sentence correct, or select [E], "No error."

I thought the correct answer was "No error," but the answer key says that [B] is incorrect in this sentence. Is the error the word "that" in [B]? If not, where is the error in the sentence shown above?

Answer: How did you ever figure out how to take this examination? I find all the asterisks dizzying. The whole thing smacks of intentional obfuscation¾ which, in the end, might well be the intent of diplomacy and a justification for your "E" answer.

The grammar answer, however, is unfortunately straightforward. "B" is an example of a dangling participle. Realizing is the adjectival form of the verb realize. A reader assumes that an adjective modifies the nearest possible noun. In the example sentence, the nearest noun to the participle realizing is the young, but "the young" didnít realize anything; the candidate did.

There are two ways to fix the sentence. One is to rearrange the elements so that the participial phrase stands next to the noun it modifies. This generates: Realizing that she could not win without the votes of the young, the candidate directed her appeal to the young. Youíd never write this, of course. You canít use the pronoun their because you havenít yet supplied the antecedent, and the sentence ends up being redundant and differently emphasized. You could save the situation, of course, by adding information at the end about the specific demographic target, but this is hard to do out of context.

If you donít have the requisite extra information, you might choose to spin out the participial phrase so that its relationship to the noun is explicit. This generates: The candidate directed her appeal to the young after she realized that she could not win without their votes. Notice that this sentence converts the adjectival participial phrase into an adverbial clause.

Are you sure you want to be in the Foreign Service? The grammar business would supply you with so much more intrigue.

At any rate, the exam is looking for your ability to recognize a dangling modifier. The principle is simple: Place a modifier adjacent to the concept it modifies.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate editing student): If you were writing in a paper that the ages ranged from 7 to 14, do you spell out seven or do you keep the continuity of the numerical numbers? In the AP Stylebook it says to spell out seven because it is under ten, but it looks a little odd if you were to write "the ages ranged from seven to 14. I personally think it looks better to say "7 to 14."

Answer: Look at the AP Stylebook again. All ages are in arabic. This takes care of this example, but doesnít get at your main point, which is whether a principle of consistency ought to outweigh the blind application of style rules.

In practice, the Associated Press answers this question "No," citing this "typical example": "He has a fleet of 10 station wagons and two buses."

The Chicago Manual of Style takes the other side:

Numbers applicable to the same category should be treated alike within the same context. ¼ Do not use figures for some and spell out others. If according to rule you must use figures for one of the numbers in a given category, then for consistencyís sake use figures for all the numbers in that category: "In one block a 103-story office building rises between two old apartment houses only 3 and 4 stories high."

Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Itís up to you to decide whether this kind of consistency is foolish or inspired.

Question (From the Internet): What is correct way to write this phrase: first come first serve; first come first served; first-come, first-served; or how? I have seen it all ways.

Answer: It is not immediately obvious to me where I ought to look this up, so I think Iíll just reason it out for you.

The phrase is made up of two compounded elements, but these elements are not equal. They are always in the order you describe. Unequal elements must be separated by some kind of punctuation and the only logical candidate is a comma. Thus: first come, first serve(d).

The compounded elements are adjectival and participial; they describe someone who has come; and someone who will be served. This shifts from the active to the passive, but both parts are past participles. The past participles of the verbs in questi on are come and served. Thus, first come, first served.

The use of hyphens will depend on where the phrase appears in the sentence and as what part of speech. If itís a noun, no hyphens are required ("Their policy is first come, first served."). If itís an adjective before a noun, however, most writers would insert hyphens to eliminate ambiguity ("Their first-come, first-served policy means that you often have to wait for a table."). The hyphens encourage the reader to attach the firsts to the participles instead of to the noun policy."

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