Hyphens in phrasal adjectives

Phrasal adjectives (or adjectival compounds, or compound modifiers) are phrases that serve as adjectives, e.g. six-hour delay, one-way street, tried-and-tested solutions, up-to-date catalogue, come-as-you-are invitation, and grammar-intensive weblog. Phrasal adjectives often need hyphens, not just for grammar but also for readability. Hyphens tighten and demarcate the phrases, which is especially helpful when multiple compounds are used:

fast-growing free-range poultry
two-and-a-half-hour on-campus tour

In these examples, each group of words acts as a single idea (fast-growing poultry, not fast and growing poultry). By clarifying each group with one or more hyphens, these strings of modifiers need no further disentangling. Note that hyphens are not used if the phrase follows the object. Rewriting earlier examples:

Our catalogue is up to date
These solutions are tried and tested (clichéd but correct)

If your text has too many hyphenated phrasal adjectives, a simple rearrangement along those lines can often clear things up.

Writers should be careful not to overuse hyphens. H. W. Fowler described them as “regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may”. Regrettably, they are more commonly done without in unreasoned ways. When long strings of interconnected modifiers are written without hyphens, they put unnecessary work on the reader. Neglecting even a single essential hyphen can lead a reader astray, as shown by the following example in Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words:

When Government financed projects in the development areas have been grouped…

Hyphen omissions can also be amusing: imagine a school of twenty-odd teachers, and beside it a school of twenty odd teachers. A well-placed hyphen reduces the potential for such ambiguity.

An example from the Oxford Manual of Style is a little used car. Interpreting this phrase fussily, a little used car is a small second-hand car, but most readers would infer that the car hasn’t been used much. This is a reasonable assumption, since little-used is quite a common phrasal adjective, and small is used more often than little to describe car size. But the punctuation and meaning don’t match up, so you should be aware that in some contexts a reader might object.

Because the rules and guidelines are not commonly understood, hyphens in phrasal adjectives tend to be ignored or haphazardly applied. Strictly speaking, only the last of the following formulations is correct:

non profit making organization
non-profit making organization
non profit-making organization
non-profit-making organization

(As are non-profit organisation and not-for-profit organisation.) Of course, there are exceptions. Hyphens are omitted when the phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly:

professionally typed letter
environmentally friendly products

Here, the -ly adverbs necessarily modify the adjectives that follow them, so a connecting hyphen is redundant and, to a sensitive eye, unsightly. Since this is the English language, there are also exceptions to the exceptions. Hyphens are reinstated if the -ly adverb is part of a longer compound:

formally-agreed-upon format
not-so-environmentally-friendly products

Hyphens don’t enter the picture if the phrasal adjective consists of capitalised words or foreign phrases, unless the phrases are already hyphenated, in prefix form, or part of a longer compound:

National Gallery exhibition
Lough Derg scenery
Austro-Hungarian Empire
ad hoc committee
cul-de-sac-based housing estates
post-Lisbon-Referendum mess

I heard the last phrase on RTE News on 21 June 2008, and idly wondered (as you do) whether the autocue had hyphenated it.

A handy device is the suspended hyphen. Here, a hyphen is “hung” on the end — or, less frequently, the beginning — of part of a phrasal adjective, where there is an omitted element in a common series:

I get on well with my brothers- and sisters-in-law
Please direct sales- and service-related queries to…
A street of three- and four-storey buildings

Wilson Follett wrote: “Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted.” The trouble is, it depends on who’s reading and judging, or even noticing. Some authorities suggest hyphenating phrasal adjectives as context dictates, taking each instance as it comes and avoiding ambiguity wherever possible. Others advocate a general rule to preclude ambiguity altogether, but this can lead to excessive hyphen use. Much depends on your own style, audience and subject matter.


30 Responses to Hyphens in phrasal adjectives

  1. conor b. says:

    Very helpful thanks.

  2. Gilbert Kisando says:

    Dear friends,
    I would like to have a list of English phrasals adjectives.If you may help me, it will be a good thing.Sure, I’m in a great need of those phrasals adjectives.

    Sincerally yours

    Gilbert Kisando student at Lukanga adventiste University/D.R.C./North kivu

  3. Stan says:

    Conor: You’re welcome!

    Gilbert: Unfortunately I don’t have time to provide you with a list of phrasal adjectives beyond those already cited above, but they are not difficult to find. Try using Google or another search engine to search for “phrasal adjectives” or “compound modifiers”. Good luck.

  4. […] of Mr MacKay’s overview. Or should that be overbite? Ah, the perils of half-baked hyphenation. « Back: Food news (new series) 7: No […]

  5. […] hearted” Henson, learn to tackle and to properly use phrasal adjectives.  You not good at […]

  6. Rob says:

    What about five gallon bucket?

    Five-gallon bucket?

    thanks! Rob

  7. Stan says:

    Rob: Strictly speaking, five-gallon bucket is the more accurate form, but it’s hard to imagine five gallon bucket being misinterpreted. I would be inclined to hyphenate it, but the alternative wouldn’t bother me.

  8. Fran says:

    I think I’ll use the difference between twenty-odd teachers and twenty odd teachers when I next teach phrasal adjectives. The kids will appreciate that one …

  9. Stan says:

    Be my guest, Fran! It’s a variation on an old theme, endlessly and usefully re-workable. Apparently a similar example was used (or at least tweeted) at this year’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

  10. Autumn says:

    Is there a rule or name for adding the -ed suffix in compund adjectives such as blue-eyed, bow-legged, or pot-bellied?

  11. Stan says:

    They’re known as participial adjectives, Autumn. You can find out more about them on this page.

  12. timandsarahmoney says:

    Courtesy of Nick Edwards at Reuters: “Analysis: China currency move nails hard landing risk coffin” (heh heh heh)

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks, timandsarahmoney. The headline is analysed at Language Log; it was one of the most awkward I’ve seen in a while.

  14. […] as an adjective preceding the noun it modifies.” Phrasal adjectives are sometimes called adjectival compounds, compound modifiers, or stacked […]

  15. […] what are regrettable necessities? [Hyphens, according to H. W. […]

  16. annabharatipaul says:

    As a copyeditor, I enjoyed your article. Very useful!

  17. Andrew says:

    Five years later and it’s still getting comments. Nicely written, even for a layman such as myself. What about the phrase “agreed upon”? As in, “… IN EXCHANGE FOR AN AGREED-UPON PERCENTAGE OF POTENTIAL FUTURE PROFITS…”

    Hyphenated or not? I’m guessing no.

    And while we’re here… does the above sentence require a terminating period? Again, my guess is no.

    Thank you

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Andrew. I would tend to hyphenate agreed-upon when it precedes what it’s modifying, as in your example, but not when it follows it (“a percentage that was agreed upon”). I’d also be inclined to add a full stop: “…future profits…”. But I think there’s more leeway there.

  18. […] possibility of confusion and ambiguity, which can arise easily with phrasal adjectives; compare little used car with little-used car. It gets trickier when prefixes […]

  19. JP Mercado says:

    This isn’t about phrasal adjectives per se, but what’s your take on the use of the en dash in the following instances:

    “Post–Second World War”
    “Steve Jobs–era iPhone”

    Some publications ignore the convention, and it’s almost non-existent in casual writing.

    • Stan says:

      JP: The short answer is that I like it and use it. But as you say, even in published (and well-edited) prose a hyphen is often used instead, by convention.

      • JP Mercado says:

        We both have the same take on it. I think it looks nice, and it serves a purpose. Do you think there’s a loss of meaning, though? Are there instances where a hyphen instead of an en dash would confuse a reader?


      • Stan says:

        The Oxford Manual of Style has a few examples where the choice between a hyphen and en dash is semantically significant:

        Thus the Lloyd–Jones theory involves two men (en rule), the Lloyd-Jones theory one man (hyphen), and the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks two men (hyphen and en rule). . . .
        Note Arab–American (of Arabs and Americans, en rule) but Arab-American (of Arab-Americans, hyphen).

  20. Robert says:

    What is the rule when the noun that is modified by the phrasal adjective is dropped? For instance, when “Here are the best-dressed musicians of the year” becomes “Here are the year’s best-dressed.” Do you still hyphenate in the latter example? My feeling is you do, because the noun is understood, and because I find the meaning could change without the hyphen. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Stan says:

      Robert: I would hyphenate best-dressed in that example too, for the same reasons – it’s clearer, and the modified noun is implied – but I expect there is variation in the conventions applied.

  21. […] as an adjective preceding the noun it modifies.” Phrasal adjectives are sometimes called adjectival compounds, compound modifiers, or stacked […]

  22. Kathleen O'Connor says:

    This is perfect. Thank you. When I edit other people’s work, missing hyphens is one of the biggest areas of correction. Like the shady semicolon, it’s seldom used correctly, and often missing when needed.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re very welcome, Kathleen. Missing hyphens are a common problem in texts I edit too, as are hyphens inserted where they shouldn’t be, e.g.:

      *The product is up-to-date.

      Many people just never get the hang of them. But it gives editors something to do.

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