Forming Compound Adjectives: Rules and Examples

A compound adjective is formed by combining a group of two or more adjectives to modify a noun or pronoun. Discover the rules regarding when and how to effectively use compound adjectives in your writing, and review some real-world examples. 

compound adjective full-time in speech bubblecompound adjective full-time in speech bubble

Compound Adjectives vs. Adjective Phrase

Because compound adjectives feature more than one word, they are phrases. They are a specific type of adjective phrase. All compound adjectives are adjective phrases, but not all adjective phrases are compound adjectives. 

  • compound adjectives - These are multiple adjectives that modify a noun or pronoun (such as fat-free cheese).

  • adjective phrases - These are multi-word phrases including at least one adjective that modify a noun or pronoun (such as extremely fluffy cat).

Are Compound Adjectives Hyphenated?

Sometimes compound adjectives must be hyphenated and sometimes it is incorrect to use a hyphen with these phrases. This can seem complicated, but it’s fairly easy to understand once you know and apply the rules for hyphenated adjectives. 

Hyphenated Adjective Rules

The answer to the question of when to hyphenate relates to whether the adjective phrase is used before or after the noun. 

  • before the noun/pronoun - When a compound adjective is placed before the noun or pronoun that it modifies, the adjectives in the phrase should be hyphenated (as with full-time job). 

  • after the noun/pronoun - When a compound adjective is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies, the phrase should not be hyphenated (as with the job is full time)

Compound Adjective Examples 

There are many examples of adjective phrases in everyday communication. Reviewing a few illustrative examples helps you see the appropriate pattern to use when determining whether to use a hyphen with a compound adjective. In the table below, the noun is underlined and the compound adjective is bold. 

Sentence

Hyphen?

Reason

The book has 200 pages

no

compound adjective after noun

I am reading a 200-page book. 

yes

compound adjective before noun

She raised free-range chickens.

yes

compound adjective before noun

She allows her chickens to free range in her yard. 

no

compound adjective after noun

compound adjective word free-range in signagecompound adjective word free-range in signage

Compound Modifiers With Adverbs

When an adverb is combined with an adjective to modify a noun or pronoun, the result is a compound modifier. Most compound modifiers do not require a hyphen no matter where they fall in relation to the noun they are modifying. However, this is not always the case.  

-Ly Adverbs

Most adverbs end with -ly. Compound modifiers that include an adverb that ends with -ly should not be hyphenated. 

  • rapidly declining confidence (correct) vs. rapidly-declining confidence (incorrect)

  • incredibly combative behavior (correct) vs. incredibly-combative behavior (incorrect)

This is one of the few aspects of English grammar where there are no exceptions. Never hyphenate a phrase that includes an adverb joined with an adjective if the adverb that ends in -ly. Keep in mind, though, that some words that end in -ly are not adverbs. So, it’s not correct to say that a hyphen should never be used with any words with -ly as the final letters. 

Other Adverbs

It would be very easy to remember to avoid hyphens with all adverbs, but that is not the case. Some adverbs do not end with -ly. When such words are used as part of a compound modifier, a hyphen is sometimes required. 

  • The word very can function as an adverb. Even though it doesn’t end with -ly, the rule for adverbs that do end with -ly applies to this word, when it is used as an adverb. 

  • For other adverbs that don’t end with -ly (well, ill, better), when used in a compound modifier, the adjective phrase that they’re a part of should be hyphenated if they appear before the noun or pronoun they are modifying. If they appear after the noun or pronoun, they should not be hyphenated. 

Examples: Compound Modifiers With Adverbs

Deciding whether to use a hyphen when there is a compound modifier featuring an adverb and adjective working together to modify a noun or pronoun is easy when the adverb’s final letters are -ly. It can be much more challenging to decide in other instances. Learning the rules makes it easier to hyphenate correctly. In the table below, the noun is underlined and the compound adjective is bold. 

Sentence

Hyphen?

Reason

I enjoyed eating the exceptionally delicious pie. 

no

adverb (exceptionally) ends with -ly

Let’s schedule a widely known author to speak at graduation. 

no

adverb (widely) ends with -ly

This is a very beautiful dress. 

no

rule to treat very (adverb) as if it ends with -ly

This ill-conceived idea could cause a lot of problems. 

yes

compound modifier with adverb (ill) is before noun

This idea is ill conceived.

no

compound modifier with adverb (well) is after noun

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 ___________ paper for English class. 

    a. 20-page

    b. 20 page

  1. The _____________ girl said hello to me. 

    a. very-beautiful

    b. very beautiful

  2. Today’s lecture was _______________. 

    a. exceptionally interesting

    b. exceptionally-interesting

  3. It took me an hour to proofread a _____________ document. 

    a. four page

    b. four-page

  4. The idea she proposed seems rather _______________. 

    a. narrow minded

    b.narrow-minded

  5. The casserole was filled with ___________ peppers. 

    a. super-spicy

    b. super spicy

  6. The classroom table is ____________  long. 

    a. five-feet

    b. five feet

  7. I am thinking about getting a ____________ truck. 

    a. brand new

    b. brand-new

  8. I’m looking forward to attending a ___________ event. 

    a. well-planned

    b. well planned

  9. This class is a bit too fast paced for me. 

    a. fast paced

    b. fast-paced

Answer Key

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

  1. a - The compound adjective (20-page) is before the noun it modifies (paper), so it should be hyphenated.

  2. b - Very is an adverb that should be treated the same as an adverb ending with -ly, so there should not be a hyphen.

  3. a - Don’t use a hyphen when the adjective phrase (exceptionally interesting) includes an adverb that ends with an -ly

  4. b - The compound adjective (four-page) is before the noun it modifies (document), so it should be hyphenated.

  5. a - The compound adjective (narrow minded) is after the noun it modifies (idea), so it should not be hyphenated.

  6. a - The compound adjective (super-spicy) is before the noun it modifies (peppers), so it should be hyphenated.

  7. b - The compound adjective (five feet long) is after the noun it modifies (table), so it should not be hyphenated.

  8. b - The compound adjective (brand new) is before the noun it modifies (truck), so it should be hyphenated.

  9. a - The compound modifier (well-planned) is before the noun it modifies (event), so it should be hyphenated.

  10. b - The compound adjective (fast paced) is after the noun it modifies (class), so it should not be hyphenated.

How did you do? If your score isn’t as high as you’d like, review the rules related to any items that you did not answer correctly and try again. 

Improve Your Descriptive Writing Skills 

Compound adjectives and other compound modifiers can help 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. 

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