Compound Adjectives  

What is a compound adjective?

A compound adjective (also known as a compound modifier or a phrasal adjective) is created by combining two or more words that work jointly to modify the same noun. They usually appear before the noun they modify, and they are often joined together by one or more hyphens to clarify that the words are working as a single modifying unit.

Creating compound adjectives

Compound adjectives are made up of multiple words, and, in various combinations, they can be composed of adjectives, nouns, quantifiers, participles, and adverbs.
Sometimes, other types of words are used to join two (or more) others. For example, the conjunction and is often used between two nouns or two adjectives to create a three-word compound adjective.
Let’s look at some examples of the different combinations we can make below.

Adjective + Adjective

When multiple adjectives are used to modify the same noun, they usually appear with commas between them or simply in a row with no punctuation, depending on the order of adjectives. If two or more adjectives are functioning together as a single unit, though, we use hyphens to join them together. This most commonly occurs with adjectives of color or position, as in:
  • “She had bright, blue-green eyes.”
  • “His orange-yellow skin looked very unhealthy.”
  • “Look in the top-right corner of the screen.”
  • “The scissors are in the bottom-left drawer.”
More often, adjectives are paired with other parts of speech to create compound nouns.

Adverb + Adjective

Adverbs are very often used in conjunction with adjectives to jointly modify a noun. However, the majority of adverbs—those formed from adjectives and ending in “-ly”—do not require a hyphen; the fact that they work together with the adjective is unambiguous. The adverbs more, most, less, least, and very also typically do not need to be hyphenated. Beyond these exceptions, though, we still usually use hyphens to form a compound before a noun.
Here are some examples:
  • “It was a very brave thing to do.”
  • “She is an exceptionally talented girl.”
  • “It was the most beautiful flower in the field.”
  • “It is a not-insignificant amount of money.”
  • “We had a sometimes-happy, often-unpleasant relationship.”

Adjective + Noun

It is very common to follow an adjective with a noun to create a compound adjective. For example:
  • “They went on a wild-goose chase.”
  • “I can only find part-time work at the moment.”
  • “The dog is a short-hair breed.”
  • “I know this is a last-minute suggestion, but hear me out.”
We can also use nouns before adjectives, as in:
  • “I’d love an ice-cold soda right about now.”
  • “Do you have any sugar-free cookies?”
  • “She was wearing blood-red lipstick.”

Quantifier + Noun

When we use a quantifier (a kind of determiner) with a noun to create a compound adjective, we often pair the quantifier with a noun of measurement (length, height, weight, age, or time). For example:
  • “It is the only 10-story building in the town.”
  • “We bought a three-foot sandwich to share.”
  • “The eight-pound bag fell to the floor.”
  • “This is a very nice 12-year whiskey.”
When indicating age, we often add the adjective old to the end, as in:
  • “His 11-year-old niece is coming to visit.”
(Note that we also use this same hyphenation when making a compound noun from an age, as in “My 11-year-old is coming to visit.”)
When we indicate cost, we normally use quantifiers with symbols of currency, such as $, £, €, etc. When the currency is spelled out, however, we must use hyphens to form compound adjectives. Likewise, we use hyphens if the numerals are spelled out as well. For example:
  • “He bought a $5,000 computer.”
  • “He bought a 5,000-dollar computer.”
  • “He bought a five-thousand-dollar computer.”
We can also use quantifiers with other nouns, too:
  • “There was an 11-car pileup on the highway.”
  • “The theater has a 400-person capacity.”


Past and present participles of verbs can be used to modify nouns in the same way as adjectives, and they can be combined with adjectives, nouns, and adverbs to form compounds. For example:

With nouns

  • “Many legends still survive about man-eating whales, but they are simply untrue.”
  • “It was another record-breaking race for the runner.”
  • “There are many mouth-watering items on the menu.”
  • “I won’t spend another night in this dust-ridden house.”
  • “The crocodile-infested waters are particularly dangerous.”

With adjectives

  • “The table is made from rough-hewn wood.”
  • “My old-fashioned aunt would never approve.”
  • “There are several delicious-sounding things on the menu.”
  • “He has an expensive-looking car.”

With adverbs

Adverbs are very commonly paired with participles to create compound adjectives. However, as with adjectives, we do not need to hyphenate compounds with the adverbs more, less, most, least, and very, nor if the adverb ends in “-ly.” For example:
  • “This company runs like a well-oiled machine.”
  • “I’m ready for a much-needed break.”
  • “We need some forward-thinking individuals for the job.”
  • “They offered me a higher-paying salary to remain in the company.”
  • “Our eyes had to adjust in the dimly lit corridor.”
  • “My early rising brother always scoffs at me when I sleep in late.”
  • “It is a beautifully written story.”
  • “That was the least interesting part of the movie.”

Prepositions and Particles

Prepositions and particles are also used to form compound adjectives, especially when phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions, or prepositional phrases are used as descriptors. For example:
  • “You need an up-to-date computer to run this software.”
  • “I’ve lived in too many run-down apartments.”
  • “We have never been a for-profit company.”

Other cases


When the conjunction and is used between two words (usually nouns) to join them as a single modifier, we must hyphenate all three words. For example:
  • “I find her salt-and-pepper hair very attractive.”
  • “These old stone-and-mortar buildings have stood the test of time.”

Proper Nouns

We sometimes use a multi-word proper noun to identify a noun as belonging to a particular person or brand. In this case, we do not hyphenate the words. For example:
  • “Can you play any Elton John songs?”
  • “Did you see the Arthur Miller play on Broadway?”


Occasionally it is possible to use pronouns (especially personal pronouns) to form compound adjectives, though this is not very common. For example:
  • “It turned into a he-said-she-said situation.”

1. Which punctuation mark do we use to create compound adjectives?

2. Which of the following cannot be used to form compound adjectives?

3. Which of the following are not hyphenated when functioning as compound adjectives?

4. Identify the combination used to create the compound adjective (in bold) in the following sentence:
“It was my well-educated apprentice who saved the day.”

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