Clarifying Compound Adjectives

Have you ever wondered if you are writing high-quality articles or high quality articles? Is there even a difference between the two phrases? I never used to care, but then the grammar gods came to me in a vision and told me that the internet would collapse if I didn’t learn about compound adjectives.

There is a strong possibility that I just made up that last part, but let me just say this: I’ve read the Old Testament, and I’m not too keen on enduring a plague of commas as a consequence for not teaching the world something useful about compound adjectives.

What Is a Compound Adjective?

A compound adjective (also referred as a phrasal adjective) is created when at least two words are combined to modify one noun. In an effort to avoid confusion, the adjectives should be linked together with a hyphen.

Compound Adjective Examples:

  • The cost-effective plan was introduced by a long-haired man.
  • I quit my part-time job to become a hamster groomer.

What Could Be so Confusing About Compound Adjective Hyphenation?

Certainly in some circumstances discussing the part-time job as the “part time job” wouldn’t be cause for confusion. But what if I told you that I saw a half baked brownie? Am I talking about half of a baked brownie or a brownie that wasn’t fully cooked? Regardless of the treat’s condition, the only thing you can be sure of is that I ate it.

Placement Matters

If you’re ready to argue that you’ve seen a well-respected writer drop the hyphen now and again, just take a deep breath. That’s because the compound adjective must come before the noun to be hyphenated, in most cases. In other words, articles of high quality are written by high-quality writers.

Compound Adjective Examples:

  • Yes: That turtle had a razor-sharp wit.
  • Yes: That turtle’s wit was razor sharp.

Note: Some phrases are customarily hyphenated even if they are placed after a noun. These include words like brother-in-law, cost-effective, fine-tune, and old-fashioned. The best way to determine whether or not a phrase always carries a hyphen is to check the dictionary.

The AP Stylebook Exception to Compound Adjectives

The AP Stylebook had to mix things up even more with this rule: When a modifier that normally would be hyphenated before a noun is used following a “to be” verb, the hyphen should be retained. Is your head spinning yet?

Compound Adjective Examples:

  • Yes: The reddish-pink rose is pretty.
  • Yes: The rose is reddish-pink.

Joining Adverbs and Adjectives

So, what about phrases like “environmentally-friendly cars,” “happily-married men” and “freshly-cut grass” where at least one of the describing words is an -ly adverb? If you guessed that these hyphenated phrases are all wrong, then give yourself a million dollars because you’re right! Most of the time adverbs should not be linked to adjectives with hyphens.

Here’s where things start getting ugly – What do you do with words that act as both adjectives and adverbs? Examples include well, fast, near, dead, straight, and long. In order to avoid ambiguity, these words are usually hyphenated before a noun. According to the AP Stylebook, the exception to this occurs when very begins the compound modifier. Never hyphenate very!

Compound Adjective Examples: 

  • I ate at a well-known donut shop.
  • The long-established truth is that I’m addicted to sugar.
  • I had a very good time watching that documentary on hiccups.

Compound Adjectives: Cry If You Have To

Learning how to properly hyphenate compound adjectives is not easy for a lot of seasoned writers. So, have patience with yourself and take it one concept at a time. You’ll be a master of hyphenation in no time!

If you have any tricks of the trade that can make using compound adjectives easier to swallow, please comment below!


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