Guide to Compound Adjectives: When and How To Use Them

Adjectives are the words that help to describe or modify nouns, but sometimes a simple adjective won’t provide the oomph that you need. This is where compound adjectives can help. A compound adjective is formed by combining two or more words to modify a noun or pronoun, and they are extremely versatile.

Compound Adjectives Definition and Examples Compound Adjectives Definition and Examples
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Compound Adjectives: Extra Descriptors

A regular adjective is a single word that modifies or describes a noun or provides information about it. Compound adjectives serve the same function, but they are phrases made of two or more words put together to describe or modify a noun.

How To Use Compound Adjectives

Despite the hyphens and multi-word construction, compound adjectives can be treated like regular adjectives. You can place them before the noun that you want to modify:

  • The short-handed staff had trouble getting in all of the orders during the dinner shift.

You can also put them at the end of a sentence and treat them as a predicate adjective:

  • The manager learned from last time and hired more servers so that the team wouldn’t be short handed.

Creating Compound Adjectives

The beauty of compound adjectives is their versatility in both usage and construction.

Parts of Speech

Examples

Number + Singular noun

five-day, eight-hour, 30-page, twenty-first-century, first-place

Adjective + Noun

long-term, high-intensity, low-quality

Noun + Adjective

sugar-free, ice-cold, gender neutral

Adjective + Present participle

easygoing, long-lasting, quick-thinking

Adjective + Past participle

old-fashioned, cold-blooded, narrow-minded, cold brewed, undercooked

Noun + Present participle

Korean-speaking, record-shattering, earsplitting, man-eating, neverending

Noun + Past participle

tongue-tied, cotton-dyed, sun-dried, wind-cooled

Adverb + Adjective

well-adjusted, ill-informed, better-known 

Idiomatic phrases

middle-of-the-road, out-of-the-way, out-of-the-box, off-the-rack

These are by no means the only ways to form compound adjectives. With a little creativity, you can invent compound adjectives of your own for any occasion or purpose, like having a Fridays-only dessert or wearing your comfy-but-presentable sweatpants. Remember that, regardless of the phrase’s length, all the words must modify the noun.

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Are Compound Adjectives Always Hyphenated?

A hyphen is one of the best ways to spot a compound adjective, but not all compound adjectives are hyphenated. Sometimes, a writer may omit hyphens as a stylistic choice. For example, some writers use quotation marks or italics in place of hyphens:

  • We went to a real out of the way restaurant that took two hours to find.
  • Creating these “more than one word” adjectives is a lot of fun.

Some compound adjectives have also turned into single words due to common use, like under-cooked which is often seen as undercooked. Others may appear as two separate words with an implied hyphen, like gender-neutral often being written as gender neutral.

Hyphenated Adjective Rules

Knowing when to hyphenate largely relates to whether the adjective phrase is used before or after the noun. When a compound adjective is placed before the noun or pronoun that it modifies, the adjectives in the phrase should be hyphenated, as in “a full-time job.” The hyphenated phrase provides clarity as it means that the two words together describe job. Without the hyphen, a “full time job” would describe a “time job” that is “full.”

  • I am reading a 200-page book.
  • She raised free-range chickens.

When a compound adjective is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies, the phrase should not be hyphenated, as in “a job that is full time.”

  • The book has 200 pages.
  • She allows her chickens, free range of course, in her yard.
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Combining Adjectives and Adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. While they can play a role in compound adjectives, combining an adverb with another word does not always create a compound adjective. This strictly applies to adverbs that end in -ly and the adverb very. When combining very or an adverb ending in -ly with another word, you do not need a hyphen:

  • His rapidly declining confidence was tough to see.
  • She was highly trained in martial arts.
  • We were extremely excited to go to dinner.

Keep in mind that not all adverbs end in -ly, like well, ill and better. Those words do sometimes require a hyphen. For these words, the general rules apply. If the compound modifier appears before the modified noun or pronoun, use a hyphen. If it comes after the modified noun, omit the hyphen.

Common Compound Adjective Examples

You probably see compound adjectives every single day without even realizing it.

  • Cutting-edge
  • Double-sided
  • Edge-of-your-seat
  • Eight-hour
  • Fast-paced
  • Fat-free
  • Long-term
  • Middle-aged
  • Man-eating
  • Old-fashioned
  • One-of-a-kind
  • Short-term
  • Top-of-the-line
  • Well-known
  • World-famous

Assess Your Compound Adjective Expertise

To make sure you are clear on the rules associated with compound adjectives and compound modifiers, take the time to complete these practice questions. Once you have completed this practice activity, get even more practice with a compound adjective worksheet.

Compound Adjective Practice Exercises

Try to answer the questions on your own, then check your answers against the answer key located below the questions.

  1. I just finished writing a 20-page/20 page paper for English class.
     
  2. The very-beautiful/very beautiful girl said hello to me.
     
  3. Today’s lecture was high concept/high-concept.
     
  4. It took me an hour to proofread a four page/four-page document.
     
  5. The idea she proposed seems rather narrow minded/narrow-minded.
     
  6. The casserole was filled with super-spicy/super spicy peppers.
     
  7. The classroom table is five-feet/five feet long.
     
  8. I am thinking about getting some gluten free/gluten-free tortillas.
     
  9. I’m looking forward to attending a well-planned/well planned event.
     
  10. This class is a bit too fast paced/fast-paced for me.
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Answers to Compound Adjective Practice Exercises

Don’t peek at the answers below until you have completed the practice exercises above.

  1. 20-page - The compound adjective (20-page) is before the noun it modifies (paper), so it should be hyphenated.
  2. very beautiful - Very is an adverb that should be treated the same as an adverb ending with -ly, so there should not be a hyphen.
  3. high concept - The compound adjective (high concept) comes after the noun it modifies (lecture), so it should not be hyphenated.
  4. four-page - The compound adjective (four-page) is before the noun it modifies (document), so it should be hyphenated.
  5. narrow minded - The compound adjective (narrow minded) is after the noun it modifies (idea), so it should not be hyphenated.
  6. super-spicy - The compound adjective (super-spicy) is before the noun it modifies (peppers), so it should be hyphenated.
  7. five feet long - The compound adjective (five feet long) is after the noun it modifies (table), so it should not be hyphenated.
  8. gluten-free - The compound adjective (gluten-free) is before the noun it modifies (tortillas), so it should be hyphenated.
  9. well-planned - The compound modifier (well-planned) is before the noun it modifies (event), so it should be hyphenated.
  10. fast paced - The compound adjective (fast paced) is after the noun it modifies (class), so it should not be hyphenated.

Improve Your Descriptive Writing Skills

Compound adjectives and other compound modifiers can improve the quality of your writing, making it more descriptive and interesting. Expand your knowledge of descriptive words to further improve the quality of your work.