Compound Adjectives

What Is a Compound Adjective?

A compound adjective is a single adjective made up of more than one word. For example:
  • It is a three-page document.
  • The life-insurance salesman was annoying.
The words in a compound adjective are usually grouped together using hyphens to show it is a single adjective.

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Compound Adjectives
  • Real-Life Examples of Compound Adjectives
  • Other Methods for Grouping Compound Adjectives
  • Why Compound Adjectives Are Important
  • Test Time!
compound adjective definition with examples

Easy Examples of Compound Adjectives

Here are some examples of compound adjectives (shaded):
  • four-foot table
  • 12-page magazine
  • free-range eggs
  • never-to-be-forgotten experience
  • well-deserved award

Real-Life Examples of Compound Adjectives

  • I'm the underdog, the 5-foot-6-inch wrestler. The kids don't say, "I can beat Rey." They say "I can be like Rey." (Professional wrestler Oscar Gutierrez, aka Rey Mysterio)
  • Cross-country competition taught me valuable lessons. Training counted more than ability as I could compensate with diligence and discipline. I applied this in everything I did. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)
  • Why do we have front-page news about celebrity divorces instead of front-page news about global warming? (Model Heather Mills)
  • Privileged girls armed with nothing more than guinea-pig-rearing certificates have started to move into law, consultancy, media and the arts. (Paraphrased from a quotation by author Peter York)
  • It's a well-known fact that tall people are evil. (Comedian Kevin Hart (5'4"))

Other Methods for Grouping Compound Adjectives

Compound adjectives can also be grouped using italics, quotation marks, and title case.
  • It's a bona fide purchaser.
  • (It is common convention to write foreign words in italics. When those words are a compound adjective, the italics group them, eliminating the need for hyphens.)
  • Is that your "go away" look?
  • (If there's a reason to put your compound adjective in quotation marks (e.g., it's a genuine quotation or a ship's name), then the quotation marks group the adjective, eliminating the need for hyphens.)
  • Did you watch the Harry Potter documentary?
  • (If your compound adjective is a title written in title case (i.e., using capital letters for the principal words), then the title case groups your adjective, eliminating the need for hyphens.)
Read more about the alternatives to hyphens in compound adjectives.

Why Compound Adjectives Are Important

Punctuating compound adjectives correctly will not only showcase your writing skills but also help your readers to absorb your words more easily. When a compound adjective is not grouped to show it is one grammatical unit, it can cause your readers' scan to stutter momentarily as they group the words into a single entity themselves.

Also, if you're following British writing conventions, you don't have a choice. In the UK, readers expect hyphens in their compound adjectives. In the US, readers are more lenient.
  • Women in mystery fiction were largely confined to little old lady snoops. (US author Marcia Muller) (correct tick for Americans) (wrong cross untidy for Brits)
  • Women in mystery fiction were largely confined to little-old-lady snoops. correct tick (acceptable for all)
Here are five more good reasons to care about compound adjectives.

(Reason 1) The hyphen might be essential to eliminate ambiguity.

Sometimes, a hyphen is essential to avoid ambiguity. Look at the two examples below.
  • a heavy-metal detector
  • a heavy metal detector
Both versions above are correct, but they mean different things. The first device detects heavy metals. The second device is heavy and detects metal. If we're talking about a device that detects heavy metals (e.g., mercury, cadmium, thallium), then writing "heavy metal detector" would be wrong in the UK and the US.

The following three examples highlight why hyphens might be essential. If you wrote "twenty four hour shifts" (i.e., without hyphens), you'd be relying on your readers knowing the context to guess the right version, and you'd have done little to showcase your writing skills or to portray yourself as a clear thinker.
  • Twenty-four hour shifts.
  • (These shifts last an hour. There are 24 of them.)
  • Twenty four-hour shifts.
  • (These shifts last four hours. There are 20 of them.)
  • Twenty-four-hour shifts.
  • (These shifts last 24 hours. The number is unspecified.)
Here's an oft-cited, but probably apocryphal, headline in a local newspaper:
  • Doctor helps dog bite child.
  • (Clearly, "dog-bite child" would have been clearer.)
The next one is not apocryphal, however. In August 2018, the grammar world was set alight by this headline in the "The Pratt Tribune" (from Pratt, Kansas):
  • Students get first hand job experience.
  • ("Students get first-hand job experience" would have avoided the Twitter spike of the hashtag #hyphensmatter. NB: Firsthand as one word would also have been acceptable.)

(Reason 2) Sometimes there's a hyphen. Sometimes there isn't.

Writers often ask questions like "Is there a hyphen in tax avoidance?" or "Is airport parking hyphenated?". Well, the answer to those questions is sometimes yes and sometimes no. If those terms are being used as adjectives, then yes. If they're not, then no.
  • He is a specialist in tax avoidance. correct tick
  • He is a tax-avoidance specialist. correct tick
  • (Both are correct. In the second version, "tax-avoidance" is a compound adjective modifying "specialist.")
  • How much is airport parking? correct tick
  • What are the airport-parking fees? correct tick
  • (Both are correct. In the second version, "airport-parking" is a compound adjective modifying "fees.")
There's a trap though. It's not uncommon for your adjective to be a compound noun, which gets hyphens in its own right.
  • He attended a course on self-awareness. correct tick
  • He attended a self-awareness course. correct tick
  • (Both are correct. "Self-awareness" is a hyphenated compound noun.)
Read more about compound nouns.

(Reason 3) Sometimes it's one word not two, so you don't need any hyphens.

Before you ask yourself a question like "Is counter intelligence hyphenated?", just check it's not acceptable as one word (i.e., not a compound adjective at all). (NB: "Counterintelligence" is acceptable as one word.)

The quickest way is to test whether your spellchecker likes the one-word version. If it does, use it. If it doesn't, it's worth checking in a dictionary (online or otherwise) because spellcheckers take time to catch up with the latest trends.
  • Students get firsthand job experience.
  • (Writing "firsthand" as one word would have saved "The Pratt Tribune" its embarrassment. Of note though, most spellcheckers show firsthand as an error, but all the big dictionaries allow it.)

Top Tip

Google's Ngram Viewer scans millions of books in a flash. It is simple to use. Use it to help with your decision on whether to use one word or the hyphenated version.

Here is an example with first-hand experience and firsthand experience.

(Reason 4) Only the words in the same adjective are joined by hyphens.

Don't be tempted to string all adjectives together with hyphens. It is common to use more than one adjective to describe something (called "enumeration of adjectives").
  • She's an intelligent articulate lady.
  • (Here, "intelligent" and "articulate" are standalone adjectives. This is an example of enumeration of adjectives. There's no compound adjective.)
Read more enumeration of adjectives and how adjectives are ordered.

If you're unsure whether you're dealing with a compound adjective or two separate adjectives, put the word "and" between the two words. If there's no loss of meaning, then you're almost certainly dealing with two adjectives, and you don't need a hyphen.
  • large proud rooster > large and proud rooster correct tick
  • (This still makes sense. It's two adjectives. No hyphen is required.)
  • first aid post > first and aid post wrong cross
  • (This is nonsense. It's clearly not two adjectives. It's a compound adjective. It should be "first-aid" post.)

(Reason 5) An adverb is not linked to an adjective with a hyphen...unless it helps.

Adjectives are often preceded by adverbs (e.g., very, well, beautifully, extremely). Usually, there's no need to link an adverb to an adjective using a hyphen.
  • Programming is an extremely creative profession. It's logic-based creativity. (Video-game developer John Romero)
  • ("Extremely" is an adverb. There's no need to link it to the adjective "creative" with a hyphen. As they are compound adjectives, "logic-based" and "video-game" are correctly hyphenated.)
Using a hyphen with an adverb like very, most, or least is an uncommon error. However, when an adverb ends in "-ly" (and lots do), many writers feel the urge to use a hyphen. It's a waste of ink.
  • Strengths: Professionally-trained editor. wrong cross
  • (This is an extract from a CV. Oops.)
However, with words like well, fast, and best (which are both adjectives and adverbs), a hyphen can be used to avoid ambiguity.
  • We're looking at a well-developed fetus. correct tick
  • (This means the fetus is significantly past the embryonic state.)
  • We're looking at a well developed fetus. wrong cross (ambiguous)
  • (This could mean the same as above, but it could also mean a well (i.e., healthy) developed fetus.)
This situation occurs most commonly with well (e.g., well-fatted calf), but it can occur with fast and best too (e.g., fast-changing wind, best-known actor).

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.