When to Use Hyphens: Rules for Multiple-Word Adjectives

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

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Hyphens. Such a tiny punctuation mark, yet hyphens can confound ESL students and native 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!

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)
  • The second presenter was a less interesting speaker. (NOT less-interesting)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien is a well-known author. (This is the exception.)

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

20 comments

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  1. ishacrowe@yahoo.com'

    Zeni says:

    Aug 18, 2017 at 5:49 am

    How to hyphenate this phrase:

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

    (as in: the kids look sweet as sugar)

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 21, 2017 at 7:22 pm

      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.

      Reply

  2. dolphin.song@aol.com'

    James says:

    Aug 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm

    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?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 21, 2017 at 7:48 pm

      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.

      Reply

  3. kathy@stephensdirect.com'

    Kathy says:

    Aug 01, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    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.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 03, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      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!

      Reply

  4. basstoff@googlemail.com'

    marci says:

    Jul 30, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    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!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 03, 2017 at 3:30 pm

      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.

      Reply

  5. mymonopolylife@yahoo.com'

    Maria says:

    Jun 22, 2017 at 6:04 pm

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

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 26, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      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. :)

      Reply

  6. gary.miller@ict.ekservices.org'

    Gary Miller says:

    Jan 03, 2017 at 4:45 am

    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?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 04, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      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).

      Reply

  7. julie_water@yahoo.com'

    Julie Waterman says:

    Oct 16, 2016 at 6:55 am

    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?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Oct 27, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      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!

      Reply

  8. myllerremote@aol.com'

    Brian Myller says:

    Feb 13, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    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!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 22, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      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!

      Reply

  9. alovesj@hotmail.com'

    Angie says:

    Sep 30, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Thanks! This was very helpful!

    Reply

  10. marbessa81@gmail.com'

    Marcia says:

    May 17, 2015 at 10:42 am

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

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 19, 2015 at 4:08 pm

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

      Reply

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