Grammar Monster
Grammar Monster

Alternatives to Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

The Quick Answer
A single adjective made up of more than one word is called a compound adjective.

The parts of a compound adjective are often joined together with hyphen(s) to show it is just one adjective (e.g., a four-seater aircraft, a double-glazing salesman).

However, it is possible to group the words in a compound adjective using title case if it's a title (e.g., Billy Elliot tickets), italics (especially if it's a foreign term) (e.g., ab initio course), and quotation marks (e.g., a "get out now" look).

Alternatives to Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

Although hyphens are most commonly used to link the parts of a compound adjective together, this linking can also be done with title case (i.e., the use of capital letters), italics, quotation marks, or a combination of these.

Here are some examples:
  • Anna gave George her "don't you dare" look.
  • (The compound adjective could have been written as don't-you-dare. However, for style purposes, the writer chose to group the elements of the adjective using quotation marks.)
  • The actions align with Dayton Peace Accord regulations.
  • (When titles are used as adjectives, it is more appropriate to use title case to group the adjective together. In this example, the compound adjective is Dayton Peace Accord.)
  • It is an exclusive restaurant with an à la carte menu.
  • (When foreign terms are used as an adjective, they are often grouped using italics.)
  • Darren ordered a pair of Phantom of the Opera tickets.
  • (This is a combination of italics and title case to group the compound adjective.)
  • Adam will be carrying a "United Colors of Benetton" bag.
  • (This is a combination of quotation marks and title case.)

Just Link the Parts of the Adjective

It is a mistake to join the adjective and whatever is being described with a hyphen.

  • It is a 26-storey-hotel in Riga.
  • (26-storey hotel )
    should be "30-year sentence"
    (magazine article)

    In the same way, it is a mistake to include the thing being described within the quotation marks, the italics, or the title. For example:
    • The United Arab Emirates Spokesman stood up and left.
    • (There should be a small s on Spokesman.)
    • It is the only bona fide cure on the market.
    • (The word "cure" should not be in italics.)
    • As far as I am concerned, you can tell the House of Lords representative whatever you like.
    • You should visit the Médecins Sans Frontières offices in Paris and pick up an application form.