It’s fair to say that getting a handle on hyphens and dashes is one of the most elusive challenges for the new writer. One soon realizes that those fiddly little horizontal lines have multiple distinct functions, but keeping track of what each mark is used for presents a steep learning curve. And then, one day, the somber truth hits: there isn’t just one dash, there are two of them, and they don’t substitute for each another.
That’s always a day of despair.
Well, don’t worry. We’ll eventually demystify the hyphen and the dash, but we’ll take it slowly. Today, we’ll be looking only at hyphens, and how they function to create compound adjectives.
Hyphens and Adjectives: a Natural Marriage
As you will recall, an adjective is a word that modifies—explains, clarifies, or describes—a noun. Words such as green, oblong, slimy, romantic, and bitter are all typical adjectives that lend a distinctive meaning to each sentence in which they appear.
Adjectives are so good at adding descriptive power that English provides the option to press other parts of speech into service as adjectives on a temporary basis. Verb forms called participles, for instance, can be called upon to work as adjectives when needed; that’s how we get to use oozing, diseased, sworn, frozen, stolen, sinking, and grown to describe nouns. Even more impressive, we can often string together two or more otherwise unrelated words to function as a single adjective. Some examples include six-year-old, jewel-encrusted, applewood-smoked, top-notch, board-certified, out-of-pocket, and third-party.
Did you notice that all these compound adjectives contain hyphens? You have a keen eye.
Hyphens serve a dual purpose in creating compound adjectives. They allow the reader to see the discrete identity of each word making up the adjective: six-year-old, rather than sixyearold. At the same time, the little line connecting each word together cements the individual terms into a single unit.
But using compound adjectives is not quite so simple as it first appears.
Three Key Rules for Managing Compound Adjectives
Fortunately, there are only three important rules you will have to remember when working with compound adjectives:
Compound adjectives almost always appear before their nouns
If the adjective appears after the noun it modifies, the compound adjective form falls apart. For instance, one could write, “We at Monaghan Dental Group hope patients will enjoy our new, easy-to-use website.” If, however, the wording changed to “We hope patients will find the new Monaghan Dental Group website easy to use,” the compound adjective structure is not allowed. You will notice that the words no longer are connected by hyphens.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, usually for compound adjectives that are well established as common phrases; for example, “Our new podiatry clinic and laser surgery suite are considered state-of-the-art.” You will have to consult a dictionary to verify current usage if you suspect that a particular compound adjective may be used following its noun.
Compound adjectives can include adverbs, but not adverbs ending in -ly
It’s perfectly okay to refer to a well-known lawyer, even though “well” is an adverb. However, a compound adjective usually may not include an adverb that ends in -ly or the adverb very. “Sheila is a very intelligent child” would never become “Sheila is a very-intelligent child,” for instance. “Very” and adverbs that end in -ly already clearly modify another word nearby, so it’s not necessary to hyphenate the word and form a compound adjective.
When in doubt, look it up
Over time, some compound adjectives that are used frequently evolve from hyphenated forms into a single word. A good example here is fireproof, which was once conventionally written fire-proof. Similarly, bestseller once was always written best-seller.
Of course, there’s no way for you to memorize all possible compound adjectives before you begin writing. Always have a reliable reference work—a dictionary or style guide—on hand, or know where to find one online, so you can look up specific phrases that you find dubious.
Make Compound Adjectives Your Friends
Compound adjectives make for vivid writing. The challenges you face in using them correctly are far outweighed by the benefits you can gain in your writing, so don’t shy away from them.
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