What Is a Compound Adjective? (with Examples)

Compound Adjective

A compound adjective is a single adjective made up of more than one word. The words in a compound adjective are usually grouped together using hyphens to show it is a single adjective.

Easy Examples of Compound Adjectives

Here are some example 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 Óscar Gutiérrez, 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"))

More about 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 Should I Care about Compound Adjectives?

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's 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) ( for Americans) ( untidy for Brits)
  • Women in mystery fiction were largely confined to little-old-lady snoops. acceptable for all
  • (Brits demand hyphens.)
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 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.
  • He is a tax-avoidance specialist.
  • (Both are correct. In the second version, tax-avoidance is a compound adjective modifying specialist.)
  • How much is airport parking?
  • What are the airport-parking fees?
  • (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.
  • He attended a self-awareness course.
  • (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.)

(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.)
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
  • (This still makes sense. It's two adjectives. No hyphen is required.)
  • first aid post > first and aid post
  • (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.
  • (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.
  • (This means the fetus is significantly past the embryonic state.)
  • We're looking at a well developed fetus. (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).
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See Also

Take a test on compound adjectives What are adjectives? What are compound adjectives? Hyphens in compound adjectives Alternatives to hyphens in compound adjectives Demonstrative adjectives Enumeration of adjectives Indefinite adjectives Interrogative adjectives Predicate adjectives Participles Possessive adjectives