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What Are Compound Adjectives?

Updated on
August 18, 2021
Grammar
What Are Compound Adjectives?

When you’re writing about a place, how do you describe that place? You describe it with adjectives. Take a look at this sentence: 

The sauna was steamy and dim. 

In this sentence, steamy and dim are the two adjectives. You can describe your writing’s subject with adjectives like these and paint a clear picture in your reader’s mind. But sometimes, a clear picture won’t do. . . you need to paint a crystal clear picture. When you need to do that, compound adjectives are one of the most effective tools in your toolkit. 

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What are compound adjectives?

Compound adjectives are compound words that act as adjectives. A compound word is any word that’s made up of two or more words, like:

  • Doghouse
  • Fire truck

Both of those examples are compound nouns, which are compound words that communicate a specific person, place, thing, or concept. Compound adjectives describe nouns (either regular nouns or compound nouns, for that matter). 

Take a look at these compound adjectives examples: 

  • Fast-paced
  • Well-known
  • Old-fashioned
  • Yellow-striped

Types of compound adjectives

Not every compound adjective contains two singular adjectives. We realize that sounds a bit confusing, so this chart should explain it more clearly:

Part of Speech Part of Speech Example
Adjective + Noun = Short-term, first-time, long-distance
Adjective + Present Participle = Whitewashed, sun-dried, homegrown
Noun + Past Participle = Second-place, nineteenth-century, four-wheel
Number + Noun = Short-term, first-time, long-distance
Noun + Adjective = Ice-cold, sky-blue, cruelty-free
Noun + Present Participle = French-speaking, mouth-watering, self-effacing
Adverb + Past Participle = Tightly wound, overpopulated, undercooked
Adjective + Past Participle = High-minded, bold-faced, long-awaited
Noun + Noun = Seasick, meat eater, bulletproof

 

As you can see, compound adjectives are defined by what they do, rather than what they contain. Any time two (or more!) words become a single term to describe a noun, they’re a compound adjective. 

Does a compound adjective always need a hyphen?

Unlike compound nouns, compound adjectives usually need hyphens. But like most grammar rules, this isn’t always the case. Certain compound adjectives don’t need hyphens, even if they come before a noun in a sentence. Here are a few examples of open compound adjectives in sentences:

  • As a new lawyer, you should expect to perform pro bono work. 
  • My sister and I are going to a dub reggae concert at the end of this month. 
  • When I saw him, he had that “running on empty” look in his eyes.

And here are a few closed compound adjectives in sentences:

  • She bought an overstuffed ottoman for her living room. 
  • The meat was undercooked, but the broccoli was perfect. 

When compound adjectives contain numbers

Usually, compound adjectives that contain numbers need hyphens. For example, you might say: 

  • The insular culture retained twentieth-century sensibilities. 
  • We ate a second-rate meal at the diner. 

But when the number comes second in the compound adjective, it does not need a hyphen. Here’s an example of this type of compound adjective:

  • My brother has Type 2 diabetes. 

Using compound adjectives that contain superlatives

Additionally, compound adjectives that begin with superlatives always need hyphens when they’re used before the nouns they’re describing. Here are a few examples: 

  • It turned out to be a very low-stress job. 
  • Maria was better-suited to the role than Ryan.

But when a compound adjective containing a superlative comes after its noun, it does not need a hyphen: 

  • When I filled my tank, the fuel I chose was high octane
  • We didn’t want to wait to eat, so we chose a restaurant that was lesser known than others in the neighborhood. 

When a compound adjective starts with an adverb

When a compound adjective starts with an adverb, it doesn’t get a hyphen. Here are a few examples of compound adjectives that start with adverbs and thus aren’t joined by hyphens:

  • Neatly pressed
  • Overly affectionate
  • Warmly received

Differentiating compound adjectives from single adjectives

With other compound adjectives, a hyphen is necessary to communicate that the two (or more) words are working together as a single compound adjective. Let’s go back to an example we used earlier, yellow-striped. Compare these two sentences:

  • She drove a yellow-striped car.
  • She drove a yellow, striped car.

See the difference? In the first sentence, we picture her driving a car adorned with yellow stripes. In the second, we see a car that’s yellow and decorated with stripes of another color. Also notice how in the second sentence, yellow and striped are separated by a comma. That’s because according to the Royal Order of Adjectives, yellow and striped both describe the car’s design and thus, need this distinction. 

Compound adjectives in action

Although most compound adjectives are made up of two words, they can contain more. Check out these multi-word compound adjectives in action:=

  • I hired a web designer to create a one-of-a-kind website for my brand. 
  • We won tickets to the new, never-before-seen-in-this-city 3D art exhibit!

You can write a sentence that contains single and compound adjectives to describe the same noun. Building on an example we used earlier, here’s one sentence that does just that:

  • The sauna was steamy and dimly lit. 

You can also use multiple compound adjectives to describe a noun. When you do this, separate the compound adjectives—and any single adjectives you use—with commas. Take a look at these examples:

  • We live in one of  the most densely populated, highest-taxed, and most ethnically diverse states in the country. 
  • She belted out a show-stopping, gut-wrenching solo at the end of the scene. 

Compound adjectives can go anywhere in a sentence. There’s no rule that one has to come before the noun it describes or that it even has to appear before or after it consecutively. Take a look at where the compound adjectives are positioned in these sentences:

  • “Fast-paced” is perhaps the best way to describe their last baseball game.
  • I want pizza for lunch: deep-dish, extra cheesy, lightly sauced pizza with lots of fresh garlic. 

Make your writing more well-rounded

Using compound adjectives in your writing is one way to make it more engaging, but it’s not the only way. Engaging writing is coherent, mistake-free and maintains a consistent, appropriate tone for the subject it’s covering. Grammarly can help you make your writing all of that and more—and in doing so, help you become a stronger writer over time.

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