Compound Adjectives

Adjectives are used to modify nouns or pronouns in a sentence. There are many different types of adjectives; each one has a slightly different purpose. Sometimes, adjectives may even be made up of more than one word. These types of adjectives are known as compound adjectives.

Compound Adjectives Compound Adjectives

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    Compound adjectives are a type of neologism - referring to the coining and creation of new words. They are formed by combining two or more words together.

    Compound adjectives: definition

    What are compound adjectives? Take a look at the definition below:

    Compound adjectives are adjectives made up of more than one word (usually two, but sometimes three). They are used to modify the noun or pronoun in a sentence, so they have the same function as single-word adjectives.

    Compound adjectives do not have to be made up of only adjectives; other word forms can combine to form compound adjectives (such as nouns and adjectives, adverbs and past participles, etc.).

    The word "single-word" is an example of a compound adjective!

    Compound Adjectives Image of snowy forest StudySmarterFig. 1 - Snow could be described as "ice-cold." This is an example of a compound adjective.

    Compound adjectives: rules

    Compound adjectives are used to modify nouns or pronouns. They can be placed before the noun/pronoun in a sentence. For example:

    "My long-term goal is to stay happy."

    In this sentence, the compound adjective "long-term" is used to modify the noun "goal."

    Alternatively, they can also come after the noun/pronoun. For example:

    "This playground is child-safe."

    In this sentence, the compound adjective "child-safe" is used to modify the noun "playground."

    Compound adjectives: using the hyphen

    Compound adjectives often use hyphens to let the reader know they should be read as one unit instead of two different words. In particular, compound adjectives are usually hyphenated when they come before a noun or pronoun in a sentence. For example:

    "I'm baking a gluten-free cake."

    However, compound adjectives do not always need to be hyphenated if their meaning is still clear without one. They're usually not hyphenated when they come after a noun or pronoun. For example:

    "This cake is gluten-free" VS. "This cake is gluten free."

    Both of these sentences can be understood regardless of the use of a hyphen.

    Keep in mind that when using hyphens, it is often a matter of personal preference. But, in some instances, it is easier to hyphenate compound adjectives if the meaning could be misunderstood. These misunderstandings may be more common among non-native speakers of English, as they may mistake a compound adjective for two separate words, which can change the meaning of a sentence.

    Take the sentence, "I saw a fish eating bear."

    Without the hyphen, it could seem as though the fish is eating a bear.

    When a hyphen is used, the meaning of the sentence is made clearer:

    "I saw a fish-eating bear."

    It is clear that the sentence is referring to a bear that eats fish.

    Compound adjective: examples

    There are different types of compound adjectives made with words from different word classes. It is important to know that just because they are called compound adjectives, this does not mean they only contain adjectives.

    Compound adjectives simply act as an adjective in a sentence, but they can consist of words from other word classes. Take a look at some examples of different types of compound adjectives below:

    Adjective Noun

    ExampleSentence
    Last-minute"I'm planning a last-minute trip to New York."
    Long-distance"The long-distance flight was tiring."
    High-quality"The TV played high-quality videos."
    Short-term"Think about your short-term plan."

    Adjective Present Participle (verb form ending in "ing")

    ExampleSentence
    Good-looking"He's a good-looking guy."
    Easy-going"Some would say I'm easy-going."
    Tight-fitting"I want to buy some tight-fitting jeans."
    Long-running"Les Miserables is a long-running theatre show."

    Adjective Past Participle (verb form usually ending in "ed")

    ExampleSentence
    Old-fashioned"The clothes she wore were quite old-fashioned."
    Open-minded"My family is open-minded."
    Quick-witted"Her quick-witted sense of humor makes people laugh."
    Short-lived"That idea was short-lived."

    Noun Adjective

    ExampleSentence
    Family-friendly"This resort is family-friendly."
    Child-free"Enjoy a child-free trip away."
    World-famous"The Beatles were a world-famous band."
    Sugar-free"The sugar-free brownies are surprisingly good."

    Noun Present Participle

    ExampleSentence
    Mind-numbing"After another mind-numbing conversation, I was ready to go to sleep."
    Record-breaking"The fastest car in the world went a record-breaking 763 miles an hour."
    Time-consuming"Writing essays can be time-consuming but very rewarding."
    Thought-provoking "He asked a thought-provoking question."

    Noun Past Participle

    ExampleSentence
    Middle-aged"A middle-aged man crossed the street."
    Sun-dried"The sun-dried tomatoes are the best."
    Wind-powered"Many boats are wind-powered."
    Tongue-tied"I was tongue-tied when I met a celebrity."

    Adverb Past Participle

    ExampleSentence
    Well-behaved"The puppy is well-behaved."
    Brightly-lit"The brightly-lit room felt uninviting."
    Highly-respected"The highly-respected university professor has been working for many years."
    Well-known"Germany is well-known for its beer and sausages."

    Number Noun

    Fifteen-minute"You need to do a fifteen-minute presentation."
    Four-story"I live in a four-story building."
    Ninety-page"She had to memorize a ninety-page monologue."
    Five-star"We were staying at a five-star hotel."

    Note that compound adjectives with numbers must only include a singular noun. For example, saying "I live in a four-story building" is grammatically correct, but "I live in a four-stories building" is not. This is because "story" is singular, and "stories" is plural.

    Compound Adjectives Image of an essay StudySmarterFig. 2 - You may write a "ten-page" essay, but not a "ten-pages" essay!

    Three-word compound adjectives with hyphens

    Although they are not as common, some compound adjectives contain three words. In this case, the conjunctions "and" or "of" are usually used between two other words. All three words must be hyphenated to show they are one unit of meaning instead of three separate words. For example:

    Three-word compound adjectiveExample sentence
    Matter-of-fact"She spoke in a matter-of-fact way about politics."
    Salt-and-pepper"His salt-and-pepper hair was attractive."
    Happy-go-lucky"He's a happy-go-lucky person."

    It is worth mentioning that compound adjectives are not the only type of compound word. For example, another type of compound word is a compound noun.

    Compound nouns function as nouns in a sentence and are made up of two or more words. A few examples are:

    • bedroom
    • raincoat
    • toothpaste

    Compound nouns are often written as one word without hyphens (but not always).

    Compound Adjectives - Key takeaways

    • Compound adjectives are adjectives made up of more than one word (usually two, sometimes three).
    • Compound adjectives are used to modify the noun or pronoun in a sentence.
    • Compound adjectives can comprise different word classes. Some different types of compound adjectives are:
      • adjective + noun, adjective + present participle, adjective + past participle
      • noun + adjective, noun + present participle, noun + past participle
      • adverb + past participle
      • number + noun
    • Compound adjectives often use hyphens (especially if they come before the noun), as this lets the reader know that they are a single unit of meaning and not two separate words. Hyphens are not always needed and often aren't used when the compound adjective comes after the noun.
    • Although not as common, compound adjectives can also consist of three words. Three-word compound adjectives always use hyphens.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Compound Adjectives

    What is an example of a compound adjective?

    An example of a compound adjective is "good-looking." It is comprised of the adjective "good" and the present participle "looking."

    What is a compound adjective?

    A compound adjective is a type of adjective that is made up of two or more words (of any word class) and is used to modify a noun. 

    What is the meaning of compound adjectives?

    Compound adjectives are adjectives made up of two or more words that function as a single unit. They are used to modify the noun in a sentence. 

    How do you write compound adjectives?

    Compound adjectives can be made in a variety of ways, including:


    • Adjective + noun
    • Adjective + present participle
    • Adjective + past participle
    • Noun + adjective
    • Noun + present participle
    • Noun + past participle
    • Adverb + past participle
    • Number + singular noun

    What is the rule for compound adjectives with numbers?

    When using a compound adjective that combines a number with a noun, make sure that the noun is always singular (not plural). Also, compound adjectives with numbers tend to use hyphens when they come before a noun, but not always when they come after a noun.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false?Compound adjectives have the same function as single-word adjectives.

    Which compound adjectives are more common?

    True or false?Compound adjectives always use hyphens.

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