Hyphen conundrum

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From John O'M.:

Is this a bed for self-heating dogs?

Or a self-heating bed for dogs?

Spoiler It’s neither and both. Dog heats reflective material; reflective material warms dog.

Very hard to do in four words. Especially if wishes to avoid the idea of self-reflective dogs.

As usual with three-element complex nominals [X Y Z], the syntax leaves us uncertain about whether we mean [[X Y] Z] or [X [Y Z]].  (And sometimes, both options are plausible in context, or may even have essentially the same sense and reference.)

But syntax aside, John's expectations for the logical regularity of English noun phrases seem unrealistically high.

We could raise similar concerns about the intermediate causal chains involved in self-locking door, self-driving car, self-defeating tactics, self-tapping screw, self-tanning lotion, self-inflating mattress, self-bailing cockpit,  and so on.




  1. greg s said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 8:38 am

    It appears that the big-image version is pointing to the wrong file, Mark.

    [(myl) Oops. Fixed now, thanks!]

    Also, no reference to the classic XKCD?

    [(myl) For that and more, see "Can '[adjective]-ass' occur predicatvely?", "Ignoble-ass citation practices", and "A productive-ass suffix".]

  2. Rick Bryan said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 9:26 am

    Self-storage unit. Pretty little girl's school.

  3. DaveK said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 9:35 am

    No mention of the peever’s favorite “self-addressed stamped envelope”?

  4. SlideSF said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 11:16 am

    Seems like "thermal bed for dog" would do just fine.

  5. mg said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 11:34 am

    Or self-heating dog-bed.

  6. Haamu said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

    All dogs are self-heating unless they're dead.

    So, something analogous to the "Rule Against Surplusage" in statutory interpretation ought to apply. ("Where one reading of a statute would make one or more parts of the statute redundant and another reading would avoid the redundancy, the other reading is preferred.")

    With regard to self-reflective dogs: In my current litter of pups, one of the six clearly appears to be more reflective than the others, but he isn't old enough yet for me to be able to ask him what he's reflecting on.

  7. unekdoud said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 2:06 pm

    Mass bends spacetime. Spacetime moves mass. Voilà! Self-moving spacetime mass.

  8. John O'Meara said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 2:20 pm


    Shocked as I am to have been cast as an English-as-maths naif, I think you duck the point by adducing unambiguous three-word examples:

    self-driving car
    [compound adjective] [noun]

    rather than tackling the original four-word form:

    self-heating dog bed
    [compound adjective] [noun] [noun].

    I like mg's approach:
    [compound adjective] [multi-part noun].

    Haamu, my dog was looking pensive. I asked what's up but he kept his thoughts to himself.

  9. Ross Presser said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

    The dog, being self-heating, does impart heat to the reflective material. But the reflective material does not warm the dog. Instead, the reflective material blocks heat from escaping from the dog. It doesn't warm the dog, but it keeps the dog warm.

  10. Duncan said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 4:07 pm

    My route to work used to pass by a self-storage outfit called "Empty Space Storage". Some people evidently have so much empty space they need to store it!

  11. ruidh said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 4:27 pm

    Heat retention dog bed.

  12. JPL said,

    May 9, 2022 @ 6:32 pm

    @Ross Presser:

    So: "self-warming dog bed".

  13. Jon said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 12:12 am

    Notice seen above the bath in a shared apartment:
    This is a self-cleaning bath.
    You use it, you clean it yourself.

  14. Pau Amma said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 8:20 am

    Sometimes articles get moved in the process of reinterpreting, and sometime the intended meaning is neither.
    Q:What did I have for dinner a month or so ago, half a baked sweet potato as I said, a half-baked sweet potato (whatever that is) as someone understood (note "a" isn't in the same place), or half a sweet potato(*), baked (what I actually had – the other half had the same fate a few days later)?

    (*) To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as a half-sweet potato, but that may not be enough to keep someone from interpreting it that way.

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 9:30 am

    Duncan: The backstage stairwells at an opera hall I used to frequent had wide landings with signs that said "Store nothing here". Very handy when staging Porgy and Bess!

  16. Julian said,

    May 10, 2022 @ 6:26 pm

    Gregory Kusnick: Love it. I am often amazed and awed by how subtle shared cultural references can be, and how much they can say in a few words. I suspect there's something quite deep going on here, pragmatically.
    Example: comment in a news thread about building defects, on the theme of how minor problems can have large consequences: 'Like an O-ring?'

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 4:15 am

    A sign I pass almost every day, on the A30/A38 (I forget which) — "Emergency sign store". A store for emergency signs, or an emergency store for signs ?

  18. John O'Meara said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 3:27 pm

    Philip Taylor: perhaps a repository — an establishment where one leaves emergency signs for safekeeping

  19. unekdoud said,

    May 11, 2022 @ 7:04 pm

    Philip Taylor: That makes the emergency sign store sign an emergency store sign.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 3:49 am

    John O' M — Ah, you have perceived a meaning of "store" which I did not even consider ("store" = "shop"). For me, the fact that it was a repository and not a shop was immediately clear, but whether it is a repository for emergency signs or an emergency repository for signs is still unclear (tho' I assume the former).

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    May 14, 2022 @ 5:46 am

    Eating (as I was, a few minutes ago) a post-Easter hot cross bun, I was struck by the fact that, in British English at least, the phrase is invariably pronounced as ((hot cross) bun) rather than the considerably more logical (hot (cross bun)). Is the same true of other topolects of English, does anyone know ?

  22. DWalker said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 9:22 pm

    A bed for self-heating dogs should be called a "self-heating-dog bed", with two dashes.

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