Alternatives to Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

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

Compound Adjectives with Hyphens

Compound adjectives are often joined together with hyphens to show they are single adjectives. In these examples, the compound adjectives are shaded:
  • It's a four-seater aircraft.
  • He was a double-glazing salesman.

Compound Adjectives with Title Case, Italics, and Quotation Marks

It is possible to group the words in a compound adjective using title case (if it's a title), italics (especially if it's a foreign term), and quotation marks. For example:
  • Title case: I have two Phantom of the Opera tickets.
  • Italics: It's an ab initio course.
  • Quotation marks: She gave me her "don't you dare" look.
linking compound adjectives with hyphens, title case, italics, or quotation marks

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.

Examples of Compound Adjectives Linked with Title Case

  • 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.)
  • Adam will be carrying a United Colors of Benetton bag.

Examples of Compound Adjectives Linked with Italics

  • It is an exclusive restaurant with an a la carte menu.
  • (When foreign terms are used as an adjective, they are often grouped using italics.)
  • She could not believe it was a bona fide decision.

Examples of Compound Adjectives Linked with Quotations Marks

  • Anna gave George her "I really don't care these days" look.
  • (The compound adjective could have been written as I-really-don't-care-these-days. However, for style purposes, the writer chose to group the compound adjective using quotation marks.)
  • 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

When linking compound adjectives (with hyphens, title case, italics, or quotation marks), be careful not to link to the noun too. For example:
  • It is a 26-page-document about NASA recruitment.
  • (The compound adjective "26-page" should not be joined to "document.")
  • It is a 26-page document about NASA recruitment.
Here is a real-life example of this error found in a magazine:

This should say "30-year sentence."

This mistake is also possible when title case, italics, or quotation marks are used. 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.)
  • Drive past the "best hotel in the area sign" to the next hotel, which is better.
  • (The word "sign" should not be in the quotation marks.)
Here are some correct examples:
  • As far as I am concerned, you can tell the House of Lords representative whatever you like.
  • (Note there is a lowercase r on "representative." This is correct.)
  • You should visit the Medecins Sans Frontières offices in Paris and pick up an application form.
  • (Note that offices is not in italics. This is correct.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are adjectives? What are compound adjectives? Hyphens in compound adjectives Hyphens in compound nouns Hyphens in prefixes