hyphenating phrasal adjectives

Hyphenating Phrasal Adjectives

Phrasal Adjectives — aka Compound Adjectives or Compound Modifiers

Phrasal adjectives (also called compound adjectives) are hyphenated. For the most part. Are you among the zillions of writers who miss this signal detail? Don’t be. Just follow the fairly straightforward rules and exceptions explained here, and you’ll master this important writing tool.

get-hyphensWhat is a phrasal adjective? Phrases often function as adjectives. When a number of words together modify or describe a noun, the phrase is ordinarily hyphenated.

The general rule: if two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun, hyphenate those words. (But, grasping the rule’s exceptions is just as important.)

The hyphen makes a single adjective out of the two (or more) words before a noun—it’s a notice that the words join to form the adjective. The hyphen(s) quickly and pointedly clarifies the meaning—alerting readers to merge the ideas before applying them to the subject.

First, let’s look at some examples of phrasal adjectives that should be hyphenated:

  •   Home-state jurisdiction
  •   Six-month period
  •   Fixed-rate mortgage
  •   Court-ordered visitation
  •   Case-by-case analysis
  •   Trade-secret protection
  •   Time-honored tradition
  •   Corporate-medical-practice-inquiry mechanism
  •   Ever-more-compromised opinions

To illustrate the importance of properly hyphenating phrasal adjectives, below are side-by-side examples of phrases with and without hyphens. As you can see, when not hyphenated they convey a completely (and sometimes comically) unintended meaning vs. when the hyphen is added:

  •   high school kids vs. high-school kids (school kids on pot, or kids in high school)
  •   one armed bandit vs. one-armed bandit (an armed bandit alone, or a bandit with one arm)
  •   criminal law professors vs. criminal-law professors
  •   small animal veterinarian vs. small-animal veterinarian
  •   old boat dealer vs. old-boat dealer
  •   bad weather report vs. bad-weather report
  •   big business owner vs. big-business owner

Without the hyphen the reader is left wasting time wondering “what’s the real meaning here?” Without the hyphens readers struggle to get your meaning right, which slows them down. The hyphen eliminates the ambiguity, and tripping over it.

Well-polished writers and editors understand the rule and the perils of getting it wrong—and regularly attend to multi-word modifiers. But for some reason many business writers, lawyers, and other professionals have a weak (or no) grasp of this rule and routinely turn out copy and documents replete with errors. Erroneously omitting hyphens triggers miscues, lack of clarity, and confusion.

So, if you want to write carefully and effectively (and avoid appearing as an amateur or novice), a solid understanding of when to hyphenate compound adjectives is really important. Oh, and don’t worry about colleagues who rebel against the hyphens—they’re wrong. By hanging on to bad habits they make readers work harder.

Hyphenating Phrasal Adjectives Correctly Can be Tricky

Getting compound modifiers right is a little tricky and requires a solid understanding of not just the general rule, but the exceptions and nuances explained below.

Exceptions and nuances to the rule require careful attention. Bryan Garner explains the primary exceptions this way:

(1) Phrases beginning with an –ly adverb: wholly owned subsidiary, newly formed opinion; legally permitted action; calmly spoken argument. An exception to this exception applies when the phrase is longer than two words. Hence: poorly-thought-out strategy. Note: if the phrasal adjective begins with an adjective (not an adverb) ending in –ly, it needs a hyphen. So, curly-haired boy and incredibly-dark building need hyphens because curly and incredibly are adjectives.

(2) Phrases containing a proper noun: a United States diplomat; that famous Civil War battle; the Pablo Picasso painting.

(3) Phrases borrowed from a foreign language: de novo review; habeas corpus petition, prima facie case.

(4) Phrases that follow the noun modified: that rule is well known (vs. a well-known rule); a claim of bad faith (vs. a bad-faith claim); action for unlawful detainer (vs. unlawful-detainer action). But there are some fixed phrases that are invariably hyphenated even if they follow the noun {cost-effective, old-fashioned, short-lived, star-studded, time-tested}. In general, these hyphenated, fixed phrases will be listed in a dictionary.

List Source: LawProse Lesson #151, http://www.lawprose.org/blog/?p=2535.


Still other important exceptions include:

(5) Each Modifier Can Modify on its Own — A hyphen is unnecessary and inappropriate when both modifying words can independently modify the noun. E.g., earnest young officer doesn’t need a hyphen since earnest and young each can modify officer without the other. The same is true of tired old dog and sharp shimmering blade.

(6) Very, Most, Least, and Less Don’t use the hyphen when one of the modifying words is very, most, least, or less. E.g., hyphens don’t work and aren’t necessary in very cold dayleast favorite sonless pointed pencil, or most striking stance.

(7) Compound Nouns Before hyphenating be careful to confirm that the two words jointly modify a single noun. Sometimes the modifier is actually just one word modifying a compound (two-word) noun (aka a “noun phrase”). In the following example, the latter is true: “The legislation defines criteria for city mitigation steps.” Here, “mitigation steps” is an open compound noun modified by city. The sentence does not refer to step to mitigate cities, so no hyphen is required. Consider also: “The loss ended the team’s ten-game home winning streak.”

Really Common Compound Nouns — Writers, editors and style guides vary on hyphenating common, well-established open (with a space between) compound nouns routinely seen together like “high school,” “income tax,” “real estate,” “orange juice,” and “bus stop.” Two primary takes are:

  • Some hold that when used as adjectives these compound nouns don’t require a hyphen (because readers are so accustomed to seeing the words together—and dictionaries list them as terms themselves—the risk of confusion is nil).
  • But others, including Garner, believe, I think rightly, that while it can be ok to omit the hyphen in compound-noun adjectives, the better practice is to include the hyphen to ensure no confusion (especially since including the hyphen never triggers a miscue).

At minimum the writer should carefully scrutinize the terms in context to avoid a miscue. After all, there is a difference between a real estate agent (a real agent of estates) and a real-estate agent (an agent selling real estate), and between a bus stop sign (a stop sign for buses) and a bus-stop sign (a sign denoting a bus stop), and between an orange juice blender (a juice blender that’s orange) and an orange-juice blender (a blender that makes juice from oranges).

Some additional nuances, according to Garner:

Periods of time or amounts. With compound adjectives denoting periods of time or amounts, drop the plurals {nine-month pregnancy; 24-hour-a-day service; two-liter bottle}. Note that you would write 30-day notice or 30 days’ notice but not 30-days notice. There is an exception of sorts for fractions: two-thirds majority.

Suspensive hyphens. When two phrasal adjectives end in a common element, use a suspensive hyphen after the unattached word to show the relationship with the common element {a private- and public-interest policy; he received a two- rather than a four-year sentence; the indirect- and direct-purchaser warranty}.

Apostrophes. Keep the apostrophes in a phrasal adjective as you would in a compound noun. Hence: workers’-compensation case; veteran’s-preference statute.

Nuances Source: LawProse Lesson #152, http://www.lawprose.org/blog/?p=2556.


Don’t perpetuate bad habits on hyphenating phrasal adjectives. Follow these rules to meticulously clarify your meaning and prevent miscues, don’t listen to colleagues who think hyphens are too formal or cumbersome, and you’ll give your readers a break.