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:
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):
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?