A Helping Hand…Confound those compounds

Compound adjectives (modifiers):  another department in the punctuation shop with which (unedited) books seem to be inundated…uncompounded.  Writers (and their editors) seem to struggle with them. Compound adjectives are when two words are linked with a hyphen to form one descriptive word. So, let’s try and make it simple…

The room was furnished with a four-poster bed

The room was furnished with a four poster bed would be incorrect. If you were to take out one of those words describing the bed, you would be left with a four bed or a poster bed; and that makes no sense, does it? Hyphenating four poster makes the idea a single one.

Cows are grass-eating herbivores

Again, unhyphenated, this would read: Cows are grass eating herbivores. A grass herbivore and an eating herbivore?  Not right, is it?  A good rule of thumb is: if you can put ‘and’ in between the words, a hyphen may not be necessary.  Cows are grass and eating herbivores doesn’t make sense.

Then, of course, hyphenating two words can serve to avoid confusion:

I saw a man-eating shark at the aquarium

I saw a man eating shark at the aquarium

The meaning is quite different in each case.  In the first example, the shark is one of the man-eating variety, in the second example, I saw a man and he was eating shark.

The two constituents of the compound adjective are not necessarily both adjectives.  You can have a noun or a present participle or an adverb, number, etc., e.g. water-sodden field, wood-covered floor, animal-print fabric, mouth-watering fruit, long-lasting relationship, ever-decreasing circles, five-year-old child, ten-second delay.  Again, break the phrase down to see if it makes sense when you have isolated its components.  Can you have ten and second delay?  No.  Can you have a ten delay? No.

A hyphen isn’t necessary if you are using proper nouns as an adjective, e.g.:

I’ve just bought a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes  (not Jimmy-Choo shoes)

Nor if you are using a ‘-ly’ adverb with an adjective:

I walked into a brightly lit room.  Whilst it’s true that you can’t have a brightly room, in such cases, a –ly word will be succeeded by another adjective and not a noun.  There’s little room for confusion.


I walked into a well-lit room.  (Again, you don’t walk into a well room or a well and lit room.)


The room was well lit.

I have seen instances where the author has gone into ever-so-slightly-over-the-top mode.  You can have too much of a good thing!  In such instances it may be wiser to either italicise or put the modifying/descriptive phrase into quote marks.

It’s not as daunting as you think:  it just needs a second to pause and consider:

Four-wheel drive

Two-bedroom house (A two house?  A bedroom house?)

Purple-spotted bedspread (Indeed, this could be purple and spotted, but you want to convey that the spots are purple.)

Large-tusked elephant (Again, yes, it could be large and tusked, but you are trying to convey that the tusks are large.)

Examples are infinite…(all these were (incorrectly) unhyphenated in novels I’ve read):

Time-honoured custom

Problem-solving skills

Salon-styled hair

Upper-crust society

Loose-fitting clothes

When I come across an under-edited book (there we go:  under and edited?  Nope.  An under book? Nope.), along with the usual lack of commas, incorrect use of semicolons, the wrong dashes, a complete dismissal of compound adjectives seems to follow suit.  But don’t worry, it soon becomes second nature.

I hope this helps just a wee bit.  I’m off to make some delicious-tasting chutney and nutty-flavoured flapjacks, after which I will go on my twenty-mile bike ride, to be followed by a muscle-relaxing hot bath to sooth my saddle-sore btm.

Getting the hang of it?

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

19 thoughts on “A Helping Hand…Confound those compounds”

  1. Cathy,
    This is a needed tutorial. Hyphenation is one of the commonest punctuation errors I find when I peer review other authors’ works.

  2. Thanks, Cathy. This should be a big help to the sometimes-grammar-challenged writer. (I had to get in an extra word, since Laurie already went there. 😉 )

  3. I hate to be a spoiler, but it’s still not that simple. Remember that these double descriptors are only hyphenated if they come before the noun.
    A well-made bed is a bed well made.
    Also, the “drop one word to see if it still makes sense” clashes with the “not necessary with -ly adverbs.” Try it with “locally-made products.”
    My editor has a huge grammar reference book (sorry, don’t know which one) that long lists of all the varieties and non-standard ones. That’s what editors are for:-)
    Thanks for the general rules, though. I learned something!

  4. Yes, but I did say that the -ly compounds don’t necessarily follow that rule because one expects an adjective to follow the -ly adverb before a noun and there is little margin for confusion. Locally made doesn’t need to be hyphenated. I used the well-lit room example to demonstrate that the rule applies before a noun. It was clear in my head, perhaps I didn’t deliver it well enough!

  5. This…was…beautiful. I have always known in my mind where to put the hyphens, but haven’t been able to convey that to others in words besides “because that’s how it is”. Thanks!! Sharing on my editing FB page.

  6. Thanks for this lesson, Ms. Speight. I need all the help I can get; BigAl has always corrected hyphens in my reviews for me. Perhaps, I will be able to get them right now. 🙂

  7. Cathy, I’m a bit of a know it all when it comes to grammar but secretly (shhh, don’t tell anyone) I’ve realized, the more I write, the more help I need!

    Thank you so much for this latest post. Very timely for what I’m writing this weekend too!

  8. A new rule of thumb for me! Thanks.

    Now if someone can explain if the period rule is legal. I am seeing it all over the place in books. Oh.My.God. or You.Are.Kidding.

    I get it – and it makes me read it the way the author wants – but is it right? Editors are letting it in. But it makes me feel like a 3rd grader.

    1. Usually I’ve seen these with a space after the period, so that each is technically a one-word sentence: Oh. My. God. The unhyphenated variant would be ohmigod (or, in certain circles, ermagerd 😉 ).

      I think all of these are colloquial, and not necessarily correct. But I can see an editor letting them by, depending on the audience.

  9. I’ll never forget when they started removing the hyphens. For example, I thought that “miniseries” on the cover of TV Guide was a typo for “ministries”, and only after some thought realized that it was “mini-series”. And then there are “miniskirt” and “intercity”, which make no sense to me: they are “mini-skirt” and “inter-city”.

    1. Seems to me that “mini” and “maxi” are prefixes, not adjectives, and thus require no hyphen.
      Of course, whatever way the British or Americans do it, we Canadians do it the opposite 🙂

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