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When to Use Hyphens: Rules for Multiple-Word Adjectives

by | January 10, 2013

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Sort out these pain-in-the-butt adjective rules once and for all!

Create your own cartoons for teaching English.

Hyphens. Such a tiny punctuation mark, yet hyphens can confound ESL students and L1 speakers alike. Don’t let these little dashes scare you—the rules for their use within multiple-word adjectives are actually quite simple. It’s just a matter of placement within a sentence. Follow the rules below to achieve hyphenated-adjective perfection!

Rule #1: Use Hyphens Before Nouns

If the multiple-word adjective comes before a noun, use hyphens. Examples:

  • She gave me an up-to-date report.
  • We used computer-generated images in our presentation.
  • After the reading exercise, answer these follow-up questions.

This rule is especially common with TIME, MONEY, and DISTANCE. Note that adjectives never take an “s.” Examples:

  • We have a five-minute break in our morning class. (NOT five-minutes break)
  • The clerk handed me a 100-dollar bill.
  • I went for a 20-kilometer run this morning.

What about using adverbs and adjectives together? Be careful here. Most adverb/adjective combinations will NOT be hyphenated. One common exception is with the adverb well. Examples:

  • Lady Gaga is a very famous singer. (NOT very-famous singer)
  • It's an environmentally friendly product. (NOT environmentally-friendly)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien is a well-known author. (This is the exception.)

Rule #2: Don’t Use Hyphens After Verbs

When the multiple-word adjective (or phrase involving a quantifier or adjective + noun) comes after the main verb (or is the main verb), do NOT use hyphens. Let’s take a look at the previous examples:

  • Her report was up to date.
  • The images in our presentation were computer generated.
  • We followed up the reading exercise with comprehension questions.
  • Our morning class break is five minutes. (Note: Now that we don’t need a hyphen, we must follow the normal rules for forming the plural, so we need to use an “s.”)
  • The clerk handed me 100 dollars.
  • I ran for 20 kilometers this morning.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien is well known.

Conclusion

Use hyphens if the multiple-word adjective comes before a noun, otherwise don’t use hyphens. Are there exceptions? Unfortunately, there are always exceptions. For example, the adjective good-looking is always hyphenated, no matter the position in the sentence. (A good-looking guy waved at me this morning. / He is good-looking.) However, I'd say that this rule works over 90% of the time.

I hope this blog post helped clarify this well-known problem!

Tanya

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Comments (48)

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Marcia M.(Teacher)

Thank you very much for your help with this tricky grammar topic.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Marcia! Thanks for your comment. :)

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Angie (Guest)

Thanks! This was very helpful!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it. Thanks, Angie!

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Brian Myller(Guest)

Thanks for the guidance. Could you please comment on the use of hyphens in the following sentence from a resume bullet:

25 Years of experience applying systems-, decision-, and communication-science to help clients improve venture success.

Thank you!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Brian,

I wouldn't use a hyphen before the word 'science' in this sentence. Are you sure that 'systems science' and 'decision science' are correct? I might reword like this: '25 years' experience helping clients improve venture success' or '25 years' experience helping clients improve venture success by providing communication and decision-making guidance.'

Best of luck to you!

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Julie Waterman(Guest)

Thanks, Tanya. Your comments were very helpful. I just have one question: Since 'good-looking' should always have a hyphen regardless of its position in the sentence, why does yourdictionary.com show it without a hyphen in its first listing: http://www.yourdictionary.com/good-looking?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Julie,

Unfortunately, not all dictionaries agree! At ESL Library, we follow these reputable dictionaries, which all list 'good-looking' with a hyphen:
- Merriam-Webster for US spelling: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/good-looking
- Oxford Dictionaries for UK spelling: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/good-looking
- Oxford Canadian for Canadian spelling (not online—my paperback version's entry is only 'good-looking')

It's tough (and confusing for students) when dictionaries don't agree, but that's the reality of some words in English. It's interesting that yourdictionary.com also has an entry for 'good-looking' with the hyphen. For this word, since most dictionaries prefer the hyphenated term and don't even list the unhyphenated version as an alternative, I'd stick with 'good-looking.'

Hope that helps!

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Gary Miller(Guest)

I'm struggling with longer phrases, such as 'technical asset renewal programme', which I have seen in a document, where it appears with no hyphens. I think it should be written as 'technical-asset-renewal programme', but I'm not 100% sure of the second hyphen. Can you give any guidance on this, please?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Gary,

Unfortunately, there are many cases where it would make sense to hyphenate modifiers but it's more common not to. My own pet peeve is 'English language learners.' You could definitely say 'English-language learners' because the 'learners' are learning the 'English language,' but it's not common, so I try not to do it. I think it's because you could also say the 'language learners' are learning 'English,' so 'English language learners' doesn't need hyphens.

Compare this with 'five-minute break.' The 'minute break' isn't 'five.' The 'break' is 'five minutes,' so we need the hyphen.

In your example, I would say that you could hyphenate (the 'programme' is a 'technical-asset-renewal' one), but it's not necessary (and probably not as common). I'd stick to no hyphens if you can break it down another way (e.g., the 'renewal program' is a 'technical asset' one).

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Maria (Guest)

'20th-century inspired tapestry' or '20th century-inspired tapestry' or '20th-century-inspired tapestry'? Thank you so much!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Maria,

'20th-century-inspired tapestry' is the clearest form. Don't forget to spell out 'twentieth' if it is the first word in a sentence. :)

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marci (Guest)

This article is very helpful, indeed :)
Please comment on this sentence, which describes a skill on a CV:
'Cultural knowledge of German-, British English-, French- and European Portuguese-speaking areas.'
Thanks, Tanya!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Marci! Wow, that phrase is a doozy! I'd suggest rewording to something like 'Cultural knowledge of areas where German, British English, French, and European Portuguese are spoken.'

It's difficult when there is a serial list AND multiple words involved. If you really didn't want to reword, I think you'd have to include hyphens between all the words before the commas for clarity (so “Cultural knowledge of German-, British-English-, French- and European-Portuguese-speaking areas'), but it is still awkward to read.

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Kathy (Guest)

In talking about a credit card account, would you hyphenate 'new-account offer'? Technically it is an offer for opening a new account, but it just doesn't look right to me with a hyphen. After all, we don't say 'brown-dog hair' vs. 'brown dog hair,' do we? Thanks for your help.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kathy,

Good question! First let's tackle the easy one, 'brown dog hair.' Since we can say the 'dog hair' is 'brown,' not the 'hair' is 'brown-dog.' So this is an example of a cumulative set of adjectives, and there's no hyphen required.

Now for the tough one. Is the 'account offer' 'new'? Yes, so we don't need a hyphen. But is the 'offer' for a 'new account'? Also yes, so a hyphen should technically be correct. I agree with you that it looks weird, though. And I myself wouldn't use a hyphen here. I'd say that if the parts can be broken down (the 'account offer' is 'new' / the 'offer' is for a 'new account'), then skip the hyphen (so 'a new account offer'), but if the parts can't be broken down (the 'run' was '20 kilometers' but the 'kilometer run' wasn't '20'), then stick with the hyphen (so 'a 20-kilometer run'). Hope that helps!

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James (Guest)

Hi Tanya, I work most of my hours in biology, and there is a disturbing lack of consistency with names in this field. For instance, I've seen the fish Acanthurus olivaceus referred to by the following names: orange-band surgeonfish, orange bar surgeonfish, orangeshoulder surgeonfish and variations of those three names with or without hyphens or word combinations.

There seems to be a recent trend, especially in the US, to combine names as follows: 'broad-leaved' to 'broadleaf' and 'three-spined' to 'threespine'.

Since I want to be consistent, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on what might be the 'right' way to go with hyphens, and combined words. Why would big-scaled and red-bellied have hyphenization and not squaretail and sabrefin?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi James,

Thanks for your thought-provoking comment! There is a lack of consistency even between dictionaries and style guides, so you're not alone in your frustration. I admire your goal to be consistent. As an editor, I am trained to be consistent within a document or website at all costs, even when there's a lack of consistency in the general field.

You're correct about the North American trend to lose the hyphen. I see more and more entries in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style where the hyphen has been dropped from words. Oxford Dictionaries are gradually following suit, and I think this trend will continue. I believe this shortening of words and lack of punctuation is mostly due to social media and other online factors. Sometimes this wars with the rise of plain language, where the goal is to make everything easier to read/comprehend (hyphens can help readers, especially language learners, I believe). However, I think this hyphen-dropping trend will only become more prevalent.

It's interesting that some of the biology terms are losing the participial form (leaved, spined) and using the noun form (leaf, spine). This isn't something I've seen a lot, but I would think it's a further change in the name of shortening and clarifying.

As for your final question, I believe the short answer is that some words just haven't gotten around to being changed yet. For example, Merriam-Webster has entries for good-looking and never-ending, whereas they've dropped the hyphens and gone with the one-word form for countless other entries. Sometimes this could be due to readability (i.e., some words just wouldn't be clear without the hyphen), but I think it's more likely that they haven't been changed yet, but will indeed change sometime soon.

In my work, I often go for the modern, one-word, unhyphenated form if it exists in a reputable dictionary. However, if all my sources list it with a hyphen, I'll stick with the hyphenated word.

I hope this answers your questions! I'll reiterate that consistency within your document/website/etc. is the most important factor.

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Zeni (Guest)

How to hyphenate this phrase:

sugary-sweet-looking kids
or
sugary sweet-looking kids

(as in: the kids look sweet as sugar)

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Zeni, I'd definitely go with 'sugary-sweet-looking kids.' If you say 'sugary sweet-looking kids,' you're essentially saying that the sweet-looking kids are sugary, which isn't your meaning.

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Hayda (Guest)

It really helped me

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm glad, Hayda!

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Benjamin (Guest)

Thank you for the great explanation. I wonder about an application of the 'serial hyphen,' if that's what it's called? For example, I want to say, '… whether or not they’ve reached the 5,000- or 10,000-mile interval.' I'm trying to avoid writing, '5,000-mile or 10,000-mile,' but I'm wondering if the first hyphen, after the 5,000, is correct?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Benjamin,

You're absolutely right. When using a conjunction between hyphenated words with the same last term, most style guides agree on using an open-ended hyphen after the first word. So it's correct to write: '…whether or not they’ve reached the 5,000- or 10,000-mile interval.”

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Tristan Wibberley(Guest)

Don't you need the hyphen in 'English-language learners' so you know it's not language learners who are English but rather that the learners are the English language kind?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Great question, Tristan! You could definitely use 'English-language learners' to emphasize that the learners are learning the English language. The problem is that it's not as common to use the hyphen in this particular phrase. 'English language learners,' without the hyphen, is used more often, which is why we choose to use it at ESL Library.

You're right that 'English language learners' could be misread as British learners learning any language, but since it's such a common phrase, I think most people would assume you meant language learners who are learning English.

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Echo (Guest)

I explain it to my students this way.
A compound adjective should be hyphenated. How do you know if it is a compound adjective? It has to follow these two rules:
1. The first word modifies the second word.
2. Both words together modify the noun.
An example of this is 'in-network plan' vs. 'health savings plan.' 'In' modifies 'network' and together they modify 'plan,' so it is hyphenated. In the latter case, 'health' isn't modifying 'savings' so it isn't hyphenated. That also explains why such combinations aren't hyphenated after a noun. In your example ('The clerk handed me 100 dollars'), there isn't an adjective at all so there is no need for a hyphen.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's a good way to explain it, Echo. Thanks for sharing!

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Claudio (Guest)

Tanya,
Thanks for writing about this subject. My gut feeling was that hyphens would be required in the sentence 'a less-than-perfect date range', but I did not find any authoritative source confirming this (my search was brief, I have to confess), and I briefly scrapped the hyphens. Your article convinced me to put them back.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Claudio! I'm glad it helped. I'd definitely leave the hyphens in 'less-than-perfect' because it clarifies which words are part of the adjective and which are part of the noun.

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Keri Bridgwater(Guest)

stylish-yet-relaxed restaurant.
stylish, yet relaxed, restaurant.

???

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Keri, I wouldn't use hyphens here. I'd go with 'a stylish, yet relaxed, restaurant' or 'a stylish yet relaxed restaurant.'

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Robert (Guest)

Here’s a tricky one. What if the first two words are a non-hyphenated proper noun?

“Plasma Cash” is a two-word, non-hyphenated proper noun.

If I want to say that a sidechain is backed by Plasma Cash, should I use “a Plasma-Cash-backed sidechain” or “a Plasma Cash backed sidechain”?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Robert, that is indeed a tricky one! For me, the choice would be between 'Plasma-Cash-backed sidechain' and 'Plasma Cash-backed sidechain.' I'm sure there are good arguments for both, but the latter (Plasma Cash-backed) looks better to me. I think the capitalization clearly conveys that Plasma Cash is a single thing.

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Anna (Guest)

Hi Tanya,

'Business-Rules-Driven Interface' or 'Business Rules-Driven Interface'? Everything must stay capitalized as it is a title.

Thanks!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Anna,

'Business-Rules-Driven Interface' sounds best to me, because the interface is business-rules-driven. It's not a business interface that's rules-driven. Just be aware that many style guides recommending capitalizing on the first word in a hyphenated form (so 'Business-rules-driven Interface'). At ESL Library, we use capitals for each part of a hyphenated word (so 'Business-Rules-Driven Interface'). I prefer the latter myself!

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Beth Silvers(Guest)

Which is hyphenated correctly (describing the generator)?
1) Lotteries are conducted utilizing AbleBits, a computer-generated random-number generator to ensure a random and unbiased result.
2) Lotteries are conducted utilizing AbleBits, a computer-generated-random-number generator to ensure a random and unbiased result.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Beth,

I'd say 'a computer-generated, random-number generator' or I'd reword (e.g., you could remove 'computer-generated' since the word 'generator' already conveys that meaning).

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Mike (Guest)

What about something like 'a baseball glove sized hand'?

I've seen both 'baseball-glove-sized hand' and 'baseball glove-sized hand'.

Thoughts?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mike, I'd say 'baseball-glove-sized hand' is the clearest way to write it.

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zaz (not real name)(Guest)

would u use a hyphen for African-American or not?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Zaz, it depends on which style guide you follow. We follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends no hyphen for the noun or adjective (so we always say 'African American'). However, you may come across other style guides that recommend a hyphen for the adjective form.

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zaz (not real name)(Guest)

now, disestablishmentarian is a long and hard word. now if you were saying ' a person is a disestablishmentarian' would you put a hyphen and reword it like 'a disestablishmentarian-person' or would there not be a hyphen at all? i was wondering because i learned about the word a few days ago

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi again Zaz, I wouldn't reword a sentence with a noun that already implies 'person' with the word 'person.' To me, 'disestablishmentarian person' is like saying 'teacher person' or 'doctor person,' which sounds strange and incorrect. We also wouldn't normally put a hyphen between two nouns (though it depends on the case).

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Lara Winters(Guest)

I have a question about using multiple hyphens. In a paper I'm writing we talk about about undernourished and malnourished people. I have written 'under- and malnourished' in a sentence and i find a co-author changing it to 'under- and mal-nourished' as he thinks the way I have written it means 'undermalnourished'. Similarly when I have written 'Inter- and transgenerational effects' he adds a hyphen 'inter- and trans-generational effects'. His way makes no sense and asking around most people agree with my writing but I can't find a definite answer! Which one is correct?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Lara,

Great question! I actually haven't seen prefixes split up that way for words that don't use hyphens, but now that hyphens are commonly disappearing from many words in dictionaries and style guides, this is a question we'll have to deal with more often. I've searched through The Chicago Manual of Style but I can't find an entry for this particular case.

If I were editing your paper, I'd recommend spelling them out (undernourished and malnourished/intergenerational and transgenerational) first and going with your style (under- and malnourished) second. If you went with the latter, I wouldn't misread it as 'undermalnourished,' but it still isn't as clear as the former. It might depend on who your audience is. I wouldn't want to introduce hyphens where none normally are nowadays, as your co-author suggested doing, though I see where they are coming from (opting for clarity). I'd say you can leave them as written or spell them both out.

One thing to note is that hyphens, while decreasing in popularity in North America (e.g., in Merriam-Webster Dictionaries), are still frequently used in the UK (e.g., in Oxford Dictionaries). If you're in the UK, you can easily go with 'inter- and trans-generational,' but I wouldn't suggest introducing hyphens like that into a North American piece.

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Gábor K.(Teacher)

Hi Tanya,
Please tell me how to hyphenate the following:
"...in a home-office-based position..."
Thank you so much! :)

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Gábor, your guess was correct! Hyphenating it that way, "...in a home-office-based position," means that you're clarifying that the position is based in a home office. Good job!

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