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

8 comments

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  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. alovesj@hotmail.com'

    Angie says:

    Sep 30, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Thanks! This was very helpful!

    Reply

  4. 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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