What Is a Compound Adjective? | Examples & Uses

Adverbs updated on  January 26, 2024 4 min read

A compound adjective is an adjective that is formed from multiple words. Compound adjectives are typically joined by hyphens when they precede the noun they modify (e.g., “two-year-old child”). But, in some cases, compound adjectives aren’t hyphenated.

Compound adjective examples
The seven-year-old boy stared with wide-eyed astonishment.
The sound of high-pitched laughter echoed through the room.
The green-eyed cat sat by the warm, cozy fire.

Compound adjective examples

A compound adjective can be formed from a variety of parts of speech. Many compound adjectives don’t contain an adjective component at all.
Compound adjectives can be formed from various combinations of adjectives, adverbs, nouns, present participles, and past participles, among other parts of speech.

Parts of speech

Compound adjectives

adjective + noun short-term, low-key, broad-spectrum, high-volume
adjective + present participle slow-moving, north-facing, sweet-talking, easy-going
noun + past participle steel-toed, ironclad, corn-fed, handcrafted
number + noun first-rate, three-story, five-star, ten-foot
noun + adjective lemon-fresh, crystal clear, snow-white, time-sensitive
noun + present participle globe-trotting, mind-boggling, finger-licking, heartwarming
adverb + past participle underhanded, finely crafted, well-known, widely recognized
adjective + past participle high-strung, hotheaded, soft-spoken, shortsighted
noun + noun grassroots, fairy-tale, teardrop, past-tense

When should compound adjectives be hyphenated?

Compound adjectives are often hyphenated if they precede a noun and collectively modify it. When compound adjectives precede the noun or pronoun they modify, hyphenation prevents ambiguity and makes the sentence easier to read.

For example, “I saw a fish eating bear” could be jarring without a hyphen, but the meaning of “I saw a fish-eating bear” is clear once the hyphen is added.

Hyphenated compound adjective examples
Our convention showcased state-of-the-art technology.
Some high-end watches cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Jenna’s fast-paced work environment required quick thinking.

Note
Some compound adjectives are condensed into one word without the use of hyphens. Consult a dictionary or style guide to determine whether the preferred form of the adjective is hyphenated or treated as one word (e.g., “a tenderhearted person” or “a tender-hearted person”).

The QuillBot Grammar Checker can help you make sure you’re punctuating compound adjectives correctly.

Compound adjectives that aren’t hyphenated

In some contexts, compound adjectives aren’t hyphenated. Hyphens typically aren’t needed for clarity when a compound adjective follows the noun or pronoun it modifies (e.g., compare “a seventy-year-old man” to “a man who is seventy years old”).

Unhyphenated compound adjective examples
The researcher is best known for her work in artificial intelligence.
The city is world famous for its architecture.
Our new facility is state of the art.

Note
In compound adjectives that include a compound proper noun, hyphens typically aren’t used between the words that comprise the proper noun, but some style guides may recommend hyphenation for clarity (e.g., “North Carolina-based company,” “Latin American-inspired cuisine”).

Compound adjectives with numbers

Numbers are often included in compound adjectives to specify quantities or measurements. For instance, “a three-hour movie” indicates duration, “a five-star restaurant” denotes a top rating, and “a ten-page document” highlights page count. When compound adjectives with numbers precede the word they modify, hyphenation is advised for clarity.

Compound adjectives with adverbs

Adverbs are commonly used in compound adjectives to describe the manner or intensity of an action (e.g., “a swiftly moving river”). When a compound adjective includes “very” or any adverb that ends in the suffix “-ly,” it should not be hyphenated.

Compound adjective with adverb examples
We sat in a brightly lit room.
The thieves devised a carefully crafted plan.

Other adverbs, such as “well” are hyphenated when used as part of a compound adjective that precedes the noun it modifies (e.g., “never-repeated phenomenon”).

Compound adjective with adverb examples
Andrei is a well-known composer.
Edmund Burke is an often-cited thinker.

Compound adjectives with superlatives

Superlatives are often included in compound adjectives, expressing that the noun they modify has the highest or lowest degree of a given quality.

  • Superlatives ending in “-est”: It’s common to use hyphens when a superlative ending in “-est” is part of a compound adjective (e.g., “the fastest-running athlete,” “the longest-ruling leader”).
  • “Most” or “least” superlatives: When the words “most” or “least” are used with a superlative, hyphens are typically omitted (e.g., “the most beautiful wedding cake,” “my least enjoyable math class”).

The use of hyphens in compound adjectives can vary depending on the context. Consult a dictionary if you’re not sure how to hyphenate a compound adjective.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about compound adjectives

What is a compound predicate adjective?

A compound predicate adjective is an adjective formed from multiple words that follows a linking verb and renames the subject of a sentence (e.g., “My cat is orange and white striped”).

Because compound predicate adjectives follow the noun or pronoun they modify, they typically aren’t hyphenated.

How do you hyphenate a three-word compound adjective?

In a three-word compound adjective, a hyphen is typically used between each word in the sequence (e.g., “a well-thought-out plan”).

When a three-word compound adjective incorporates a compound proper noun, such as “New York,” it is generally unnecessary to use a hyphen between the words that comprise the proper noun (e.g., “New York-style,” “Great Gatsby-themed,” “Franz Kafka-inspired”).

What punctuation is used when creating compound adjectives?

Hyphens are typically used in compound adjectives to ensure clarity (e.g., “client-centered approach” or “budget-friendly accommodations”). Compound adjectives that follow the noun they modify usually don’t require hyphens (e.g., “an approach that is client centered,” “accommodations that are budget friendly”).

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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