We often get asked about hyphenation with compound adjectives. So, here’s our guide to compound adjectives and hyphenation, including what hyphens are, when you should use them, and when you shouldn’t.
What Are Hyphens?
Hyphens (-) are a form of punctuation used to show that two (or more) words or parts of words are combined to give one meaning.
What Are Compound Adjectives?
Compound adjectives are created by joining two (or more) words together with a hyphen, then using them to modify a noun or pronoun. For example:
A cold-blooded killer
A much-loved artist
An 800-page novel
A happy-go-lucky trio
In all the examples above, the hyphenated term is an adjective modifying a noun.
When Does a Compound Adjective Need to Be Hyphenated?
Hyphenating a compound adjective helps to show that the parts belong together. This can help to prevent ambiguity. For example, compare the following sentences:
I saw a man eating lion today.
I saw a man-eating lion today.
The first sentence here could describe a man who was eating lion meat! But the second is clearer because we hyphenate “man-eating,” which shows both terms are modifying “lion.”
Typically, compound adjectives are only hyphenated like this when they appear before the words they are modifying. For instance, both of the following are correct:
She is a much-loved artist.
As an artist, she is much loved.
However, this is only a guideline! Some terms are always hyphenated regardless of where they appear in a sentence. This is common with compounds formed using the word “free,” for example:
The error-free paper received a high mark.
The paper received a high mark because it was error-free.
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And other compounds are conventionally written either as open or closed compounds regardless of the context. For instance:
Her living room table was neatly set.
The overcooked meat looked terrible.
As a result, it can be tricky to know when to hyphenate a compound adjective! If in doubt, checking a dictionary can help. But the other key issues are clarity (i.e., Will hyphenating the word make its meaning clearer?) and consistency (i.e., How have I punctuated this word elsewhere?).
Try to keep these factors in mind! In addition, we have some extra tips below.
Sometimes you may need to use hanging hyphens (or suspended hyphens)! You can use a hanging hyphen when two compound terms used close together have the same second element:
She took pre- and post-natal vitamins.
This helps to minimize unnecessary repetition, making your writing read more smoothly.
When Should I Not Use Hyphens?
There are times when it’s not correct to use a hyphen, even if it seems like you should.
First, you don’t need to use a hyphen when using comparative and superlative modifiers. Comparative modifiers are words that compare things (e.g., prettier and smarter). Superlative modifiers are words that show something is of the highest or least degree (e.g., smallest and roundest).
She is the most-brilliant singer. ✘
She is the most brilliant singer. ✔
Second, when the compound modifier includes an -lyadverb or the word “very,” you don’t need to use a hyphen:
An unusually-talented student. ✘
An unusually talented student. ✔
Keep these rules in mind when considering the hyphenation of a compound adjective!
Summary: Compound Adjectives and Hyphenation
Hyphens are generally used when forming compound adjectives, but you should be aware of the exceptions. These include compounds formed using superlatives, comparatives, and many adverbs.
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