As a general rule, the words in a compound adjective are hyphenated when they come before a noun (a well-known actor) but not when they come after (The actor is well known).
Also, compound adjectives formed with an adverb ending in -ly (such as rapidly changing) are usually not hyphenated. (See Examples and Observations, below.)
- Attributive Adjective
- Compound Noun
- Compound Verb
- Rhyming Compound
- Semantic Transparency
- Suspended Compound
Examples and Observations:
- "You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn't. He fixed us."
- "If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through."
(Stephen Fry as General Melchett in "Private Plane." Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989)
- "The general was meeting someone for dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant, not in the suburb of Nanterre, but close by."
(Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity. Richard Marek Publishers, 1980)
- "A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life."
(William Arthur Ward)
"In the 19th century, before the science of archaeology became well developed, the Ottomans laid out the brick and concrete city that stands today."
(Scott Macleod, "Alexandria Rising." Time magazine, June 15, 1998)
- "It was said that if Mr. Jones had had a tail and the dogs well-polished shoes, they would have made triplets. "
(Jane Gardam, The People on Privilege Hill. Europa, 2009)
"Jane said nothing and looked at her shoes. They were well polished."
(Fay Weldon, Auto da Fay. HarperCollins, 2002)
- "The Commission sees an urgent need for action to provide a simple, cost-effective and high-quality patent system in Europe."
(Catherine Seville, EU Intellectual Property Law and Policy. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009)
- "People lived and worked beneath lowering coal-black skies and imbibed the sulphurous, smoke-filled air with every breath they took."
(Stephen Mosely, "Public Perception of Smoke Pollution in Victorian Manchester." Technologies of Landscape, ed. David E. Nye. University of Massachusetts Press, 1999)
- "The influence of late-nineteenth-century political practice resonates through the early twentieth century, reminding scholars accustomed to viewing a sharp divide between nineteenth- and twentieth-century political practice--a divide that too often positions Progressives as the first stirrings of American politics--of the nineteenth-century roots of twentieth-century developments."
(Daniel Klinghard, The Nationalization of American Political Parties, 1880-1896. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
- "It is your original ethnic theme park. I could eat the air, food-promise-crammed. Street life chugs, as thick and rich as arterial blood. Guitar-twang speech, a harmonic convergence of it, is all around."
(D. Keith Mano, "There's More to Chinatown." The New York Times, April 24, 1988)
- "I hadn't counted on the wind.
"It was loud the first time, but this time it was ear-splitting, bone-chilling, knee-trembling . . . every-damn-body-part-shaking, all multiplied out by about a million. And this second blast was topped off by a frightening wind, so I suppose it was hair-flapping as well."
(Richard Picciotto, Last Man Down: A Firefighter's Story of Survival and Escape From the World Trade Center. Berkley, 2002)
- Hyphenation With Compound Adjectives
"Interestingly, hyphenation is also used creatively to indicate that an idea that would normally be expressed by a phrase is being treated as a single word for communicative purposes because it has crystallised in the writer's mind into a firm, single concept. Thus, for example, the expression simple to serve is normally a phrase, just like easy to control. But it can also be used as a hyphenated word as in simple-to-serve recipe dishes (M&S Magazine 1992: 9). . . .
"But for creative hyphenation you are unlikely to find anything more striking than this:
[2.3] On Pitcairn there is little evidence of the what-we-have-we-hold, no-surrender, the Queen's-picture-in-every-room sort of attitude.(Francis Katamba, English Words: Structure, History, Usage, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)
(Simon Winchester in The Guardian magazine, 12 June 1993: 27; italics added to highlight the compounds)"
"Adverbs that do not end in -ly may take the hyphen to form a compound adjective. The reason is obvious. A fast-moving script suggests a roller coaster plot while a fast moving script might have pace but it is emotionally charged (i.e., emotionally moving) at the same time."
(Bruce Grundy, So You Want to be a Journalist? Cambridge University Press, 2007)
"A notable exception occurs when the first part of the compound adjective is an adverb that ends in -ly. In this case, the compound remains open, even when it is followed by the noun.
The woman who met us in the lobby was beautifully dressed.(Oxford American Large Print Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008)
A beautifully dressed woman met us in the lobby."
- The Lighter Side of Compound Adjectives: Laser-Focused
"Will somebody explain to me why every focus is now laser-focused? Lasers can guide, ignite, heat, drive and print, but focus? This is the hottest compound adjective around today, leaving all other focuses fuzzy. In Enron's 2000 annual report, the company claimed to be 'laser-focused on earnings per share,' at which point I should have become suspicious."
(William Safire, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time. Simon & Schuster, 2004)