What Are Compound Adjectives?

The Quick Answer
A compound adjective is a single adjective made up of more than one word (e.g., two-seater aircraft, free-range eggs).

The words in a compound adjective are often linked together with a hyphen (or hyphens) to show they are part of the same adjective.

Definition of Compound Adjective

A compound adjective is an adjective that comprises more than one word. Usually, a hyphen (or hyphens) is used to link the words together to show that it is one adjective. For example:
  • Please request a four-foot table.
  • (Four-foot is an adjective describing table. A hyphen is used to link four and foot to show they are part of the same adjective.)
  • It is a 6-page document.
  • Claire worked as a part-time keeper at the safari park.
  • That is an all-too-common mistake.

Compound Adjectives from Proper Nouns

Often adjectives are formed from proper nouns (i.e., the names of things), which should be written using capital letters. In these circumstances, there is no need to group the words together using hyphens. For example:
  • Did you manage to get the Billy Elliot tickets?
  • (The words Billy Elliot are one adjective describing the tickets. As the capital letters group the words, there is no need to use a hyphen.)

(Waking the Dead is correct. It is a compound adjective using title case.)

Compound Adjectives with Quotation Marks and Italics

Although a less common practice, it is also possible to group the words in a compound adjective using quotation marks, italics or a combination of the two. (Italics tend to be used for foreign words.)

  • It is an ab initio course (i.e., for beginners).
  • (italics used to group the adjective)
  • Amber looked at the stick in the water, looked me in the eye and then turned away, giving me a "get it yourself" look.
  • (quotation marks used to group the adjective)
  • For more than ten years, Jack claimed to be part of the "Mary Celeste" crew before admitting to his cousin at a party that he was not.
  • (capital letters, italics and quotation marks used to group the adjective)

Adverbs and Compound Adjectives

As covered in the lesson on adverbs, an adjective is often preceded by a word like very, well, beautifully, or extremely. (These are adverbs.)

Usually, there is no need to link an adverb to an adjective using a hyphen. For example:
  • Young Tracey is an extremely brave girl.
  • (The adverb extremely modifies the adjective brave but is not part of it. There is no need to group it and brave together with a hyphen.)
  • It was a beautifully painted portrait in a skilfully carved frame.
  • (The adverb beautifully adds to the adjective painted but is not part of it. It is the same with skilfully and carved. There is no need for hyphens.)

Ambiguous Adverbs

However, with words like well and fast (which are both adjectives and adverbs), a hyphen can be used to avoid ambiguity. For example:
  • Jacob took the well-fatted calf to the riverside.
  • (well-fatted calf as in a very plump calf)
  • Jacob took the well fatted calf to the riverside.
  • (well fatted calf could be construed as a well (i.e., healthy) and fatted calf. In the first example, the well-fatted calf could be ill.)

See Also

What are adjectives? What are adverbs? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are nouns? What are prepositions? What are pronouns? What are verbs? Compound adjectives Demonstrative adjectives Enumeration of adjectives Indefinite adjectives Interrogative adjectives Predicate adjectives Participles Possessive adjectives