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Compound Adjectives

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  Ed Good  —  Grammar Tips
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Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

The English language is remarkably versatile, for it allows us to make up words and expressions that don’t otherwise appear in the dictionary. One type of expression we frequently invent is the compound adjective (also called the phrasal adjective), which is an adjective consisting of more than one word.

Examples include the well-known actor, the widely used procedure, the decision-making process, and on and on. Most writers do a good job of devising these words and a terrible job of spelling them correctly.

If your supervisors or professors see the widely-used procedure on one page and the recently acquired software package on another, then they will rightly wonder about your attention to detail and your consistency in applying ordinary rules of spelling.

Why include the hyphen in widely-used and omit it in recently acquired? Answer: The hyphen should appear in neither, and the problem of correct hyphenation never occurred to you.

Some general observations can help you understand the principles behind the rules on hyphenating compound adjectives and therefore increase your chances of getting it right.

To begin, a compound adjective is a single expression made up of more than one word and acting as a single adjective. Look at the following compound adjectives: publicly traded stock, well-known actress, and bookkeeping system. Notice that each is spelled in a different way:

1. open (publicly traded) 2. hyphenated (well-known) 3. closed (bookkeeping)

And that’s the issue you’ll face: whether to spell the multiword expression as two or more words (open), as a hyphenated expression (hyphenated), or as a single word (closed).

Most hyphenation in compound adjectives occurs when the compound adjective comes before the noun, that is, in the attributive position. As a broad rule, when a compound adjective appears after the noun it modifies, that is, in the predicative position, it will not be hyphenated. Thus:

the well-known actress


The actress is well known.

Hyphens in Compound Adjectives, General Rule

The broad and general rule, then, is this: When a multiword adjective comes before the word it modifies, hyphenate it. When it comes after the word it modifies, don’t hyphenate it.

Only some of the compound adjectives will have this ability to migrate from the attributive to the predicative position. You could not, for example, convert the day-trip trade to the trade is day trip. But you can convert the ill-conceived plan to the plan is ill conceived.

-ly Adverbs

One of the most important exceptions to this general rule applies to the compound adjective formed with an ‑ly adverb (widely) and a participle (used) or other adjective. These expressions are never hyphenated. Thus:

internationally recognized author (past participle) rapidly increasing revenues (present participle) newly free country (adjective)

The above rule applies to ‑ly adverbs. But when you form a compound adjective with adverbs not ending in ‑ly, such as well or ill, the expression is hyphenated when it comes before the modified noun. If the compound adjective isfurther modified by an adverb, no hyphen appears. Study these two examples:

the well-known actress the very well known actress the ill-conceived plan

If the expression comes after the modified noun, however, no hyphen appears.

The actress is well known.

Though it’s difficult to classify all possible compound adjectives, you will find that many fall into one of various categories. These appear in the eBook Rules on Punctuation.

Read The Wall Street Journal

If you want to see the most consistent editorial work in the area of hyphenation, just read The Wall Street Journal. On any given day, on the front page, you will find scores of hyphenated words, all following the correct system of hyphenation. I personally like the system, for I believe it facilitates reading.

Here’s a list of compound adjectives appearing on the front page of the April 19, 1994, edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Wall Street Journal Examples Wall Street Journal Examples
11-year-old schoolboys military-base conversion
American-style savagery short-term interest rates
bone-numbing currents so-called Brady bill
bungee-jump advocates teeth-rattling fogs
cellular-phone services Texas-based search firm
entry-level salaries three-ring circus
executive-search firm three-year profit streak
first-quarter profit two-year-old boy
gun-control debate U.S.-built artillery-targeting systems


On page B1 of the same issue, we find the following passage:

The day-trip trade also is flourishing. Experts say people are staying closer to home on weekends and holidays, taking advantage of new daylong hot-spring packages and by-the-hour room rentals.

Notice that daylong in the above passage is not hyphenated for the simple reason that it has achieved “word” status, which you can determine by checking an unabridged dictionary.

Now, in The Washington Post, in three headlines on the front page of the October 19, 1994, edition, one would find three compound adjectives consisting of nouns and ‑ing verbs. Note the inconsistent approach:

base-closing test expense-paring efforts intelligence gathering methods (why no hyphen?)


Previous: Different from vs. Different than

Next: Adjectival Phrases

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  • matt_i
    WSJ takes their style too far concerning compound nouns. Some combinations of adjectives and nouns become one idea after enough common usage, like "cellular phone." I have one mental model for the concept those two words are referring to, not two. So I can't be the only one who finds "cellular-phone companies" to be clunky and almost confusing. 
    LikeReply 13 years ago
  • Bruce Lacey
    Bruce Lacey
    What about phrases like "career development plan"? Or, for that matter, "Wall Street Journal"? Would it be correct to say that "Wall Street" does not function as an adjective in that phrase?And to apply the same explanation to phrases like "career development plan," which one rarely sees hyphenated? 
    LikeReply5 years ago
  • Cheryl Baba
    Cheryl Baba
    LikeReply 37 years ago
    • Aviv Ben Efraim
      Aviv Ben Efraim
      LikeReply 27 years ago


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