Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Hyphens – part 6: compound adjectives

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A compound adjective is an adjective made up of two or more words.

Compound adjectives will usually take hyphens when they come before the person or thing being described. For example:

  •  A high-risk strategy
  • A well-fed dog
  • An ill-equipped army
  • An up-to-date dictionary

However, if the compound adjective is used after the person or thing being described, the hyphen is usually dropped. For example:

  • The strategy is high risk
  • The dog is well fed
  • The army is ill equipped
  • The dictionary is up to date

 And just one more thing…

Compound adjectives in which the first word of the compound ends in ‘ly’ (an adverb) never take a hyphen. For example:

  • A poorly maintained building
  • A brightly coloured dress
  • A strongly built car
  • A richly decorated curtain
  • A badly cut suit

Hyphens to help avoid confusion

Hyphens and numbers

Hyphens and compass points

Hyphens and separating identical letters

Hyphens and compound nouns

Hyphens and ‘un’ words

Find more user-friendly info on punctuation


7 Responses

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  1. Re: Hyphens

    I did not know this! I always hypenated, or rather, overly hyphenated my adjectives. You could call me an hyper hyphenator! Thanks. Love your blog.


    16/03/2010 at 12:30 pm

    • I don’t think I knew that compound adjectives ending in a ‘y’ don’t take a hyphen. I say that I ‘don’t think I knew’ because when I see it explained it looks absolutely right, but I have a niggling feeling that I’ve made that mistake. Thank you 🙂


      16/03/2010 at 1:29 pm

      • You’re very welcome! It’s a common mistake, and one that’s easy to make.


        16/03/2010 at 1:57 pm

        • Ooops..forgot to add my name above. Sorry about that.

          Jo-Anne Moore

          16/03/2010 at 3:05 pm

    • I like that — ‘hyper hyphenator’! Hyphens are a bit of a minefield. Thank you for your kind words about the blog — much appreciated.


      16/03/2010 at 1:59 pm

  2. Nooooooooooooooooooooo.

    The New York Times’ After Deadline column has asserted (apparently backed by The Times’ stylebook) that the adjective ‘anti-aircraft’ should not be hyphenated (see below). That was some meeting I missed.

    Seriously, antiaircraft? They’ve got to be kidding. That has to be the ugliest word I’ve seen for some time. The Oxford Dictionary of English, thankfully, remains steadfast in the face of this gratuitous hyphen cull and lists ‘anti-aircraft’ with a hyphen. Anyways, read it and weep:

    [Caption] Tracer bullets fired from anti-aircraft guns left light trails in the sky above the Libyan capital on Monday night.

    [Text] Explosions and antiaircraft fire could be heard in and around Tripoli on Monday in a third straight night of attacks there against Colonel Qadaffi’s forces.

    Right in the text, wrong in the caption, according to The Times’s stylebook: no hyphen in “antiaircraft.”


    29/03/2011 at 5:34 pm

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