What Are Compound Adjectives?

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Compound adjectives are composed of more than one word. They have the same role in a sentence as one-word adjectives. This can sometimes be confusing for learners of English because those words don’t have to be adjectives but can be a combination of different kinds of words.

Examples include:

Mary had light-brown hair.(adjective-adjective)
He has a part-time job at McDonald’s.(noun-noun)
Are these sales figures up-to-date?(preposition-preposition-noun)
It was a meat-eating dinosaur.(noun-verb)
I thought it was a well-written novel.(adjective-past participle)
She wore a blood-red jacket.(noun-adjective)
Get up-to-the-minute football scores.(preposition-preposition-article-noun)

Compound adjectives are often joined by hyphens but that is not always the case. It is unnecessary to hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective:

He was an exceptionally gifted pianist (the adverb exceptionally modifies the adjective gifted which in turn modifies the noun pianist)

When that adverb is followed by a past participle, it can be connected with a hyphen because that creates a compound adjective:

He was a well-respected politician

He is an often-quoted author

She admired the skilfully-crafted ornament

They were in a brightly-decorated corridor

If the compound adjective follows the noun it is modifying, you don’t need a hyphen (or hyphens) unless the adjective is hyphenated in the dictionary:

The actor was well known

His novel was expertly written

The water was ice-cold

She works there full-time

Some compound adjectives include numbers and words:

We flew in a six-seater aircraft.

I have booked two nights in a five-star hotel.

You can call our 24-hour hotline.

I’m afraid there will be a twenty-minute delay.

Compound adjectives which are attributive (they are within the noun phrase) are usually separated with hyphens. This is to make it clear to the reader which words are modifying the noun:

Red-hot plate (a plate which is red hot)

Red hot plate (a hot plate which is red in colour)

English-speaking class (the class is held in English, or the participants speak English)

English speaking class (this is a class focusing on speaking English)

Modern-art studio (a studio for modern works of art)

Modern art studio (a modern studio for works of art)

Wild-goose chase (an idiom in English to mean a futile pursuit)

Wild goose chase (a chase involving wild geese)

Exercise: Rewrite the following sentences using compound adjectives.

  1. In South America, you can find huge spiders that eat birds. ________________________
  2. The hotel has four stars. __________________________
  3. She works as a waitress part time. ________________________
  4. His hair was a light shade of brown. ________________________

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This blog was written by Intrepid English Teacher and Founder, Lorraine.

Find out more about Lorraine on her Intrepid English Teacher profile page

If you have any questions, or you would like to request a topic for a future blog, you can contact us using the chat box, or email us at Intrepid English.

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