hyphens: compound adjectives

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Noun-plus-adjective compounds

Hyphenate compounds with the structure noun-plus-adjective, whether they’re used before the noun or after the verb:

  • He bought duty-free goods. / The goods were duty-free.
  • Invest in tax-exempt bonds. / The bonds are tax-exempt.

Noun-plus-participle compounds

Hyphenate noun-plus-participle compounds regardless of the position:

  • They skied down the snow-capped mountains. / The mountains were snow-capped.
  • This was a time-consuming activity. / This activity was time-consuming.

Exceptions: A number of noun-plus-participle compounds, including handwritten and handmade, are written as one word.

Noun-plus-gerund compounds

Hyphenate two-word compound adjectives consisting of a noun plus a gerund when they come before the noun:

  • the decision-making process
  • a problem-solving approach
  • a profit-sharing plan
  • a tape-recording session

Adjective-plus-noun compounds and participle-plus-noun compounds

Hyphenate adjective-plus-noun and participle-plus-noun compounds that modify another noun:

  • present-day Derby
  • full-time employment
  • large-scale development
  • special-interest groups
  • working-class neighbourhoods
  • compressed-air engine

Also hyphenate adjective-plus-noun and participle-plus-noun compounds when they come after a linking verb (for example, be) and act as an adjective:

  • The development was large-scale.
  • Her position is full-time.

But don’t hyphenate when they follow an action verb and they don’t act as an adjective:

  • Development proceeded on a large scale.
  • He works full time.

Adjective-plus-participle compounds

Hyphenate adjective-plus-participle compounds, whether they’re used before the noun or after it:

  • Taradiddle is an odd-sounding word. / The word is odd-sounding.
  • He was a smooth-talking con artist. / The con artist was smooth-talking.

Adjective-plus-noun-plus-“ed” compounds

Hyphenate compounds made up of an adjective plus a noun to which the ending -ed has been added, in any position in the sentence:

  • able-bodied
  • many-sided
  • short-handed
  • strong-willed

Preposition-plus-noun compounds

Hyphenate compound adjectives made up of a preposition and a noun:

  • after-tax income
  • in-service courses
  • on a per-gram basis
  • out-of-province benefits

Compounds ending in adverbs

Hyphenate compound adjectives that end with an adverb of direction or place (in, out, down, up, etc.) when they precede the noun:

  • a built-up area
  • a drive-by shooting
  • all-out competition
  • the trickle-down theory

Compounds containing verbs

Hyphenate a compound adjective that contains a finite verb:

  • a pay-as-you-go approach
  • a would-be writer
  • a work-to-rule campaign

Compounds of three or more words

Hyphenate compound adjectives of three or more words that include an adverb or a preposition and are used before the noun:

  • a long-drawn-out affair
  • an up-to-date approach
  • the cost-of-living index
  • a subject-by-subject analysis
  • on-the-job training

Compound proper adjectives

Hyphenate compound proper adjectives that form a true compound:

  • the Anglo-Saxon period
  • the Sino-Russian border
  • the Austro-Hungarian Empire
  • Greco-Roman art
  • an Asian-Canadian author

But don’t hyphenate those in which a proper adjective is combined with a simple modifier:

  • Latin American governments
  • Middle Eastern affairs
  • North American interests
  • Central Asian republics

Compounds containing colours

Hyphenate compound adjectives made up of two colours, whether they’re placed before or after the noun:

  • It was covered with blue-green algae.
  • It was blue-green.

Hyphenate compound adjectives containing a colour that ends with the suffix -ish only when they precede the noun:

  • The tree had bluish-green leaves.

Don’t hyphenate adjectives indicating a specific shade (even if they precede the noun):

  • dark green paint
  • a bright red dress
  • strawberry blond hair

Do not hyphenate

Don’t hyphenate French or foreign words used as adjectives or placed in italics:

  • a pure laine Quebecker
  • their a priori reasoning
  • a fare bella figura mindset

(Note, however, that adjectives already hyphenated in French or foreign languages retain their hyphen in English: avant-garde filmmaking, a laissez-faire approach, etc.)

Don’t hyphenate proper nouns used as adjectives:

  • a Privy Council decision
  • a New York State chartered bank

Don’t hyphenate words in quotation marks:

  • a “zero tolerance” approach

Don’t hyphenate chemical terms used as adjectives:

  • a calcium nitrate deposit
  • a sodium chloride solution

Additional information

Copyright notice for Writing Tips Plus

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool created and made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

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