When Does a Compound Modifier Need a Hyphen?

woman ponders compound modifiersModifiers are words that provide additional information about or limit the meaning of a word or phrase.

Adjectives modify nouns (person, place, thing). They often are called “describing words,” because they provide more details about a noun.

  • She has a pleasant home.
  • There are three boys sitting on the fence.
  • He’s riding the white horse.

Adverbs modify verbs (action), adjectives, and even other adverbs. They answer questions such as when, where, how, and to what extent.

  • when: She travels to Chicago weekly.
  • where: He dropped the shovel there.
  • how: She pedals her bike furiously.
  • to what extent: He mostly agrees with me.

When a single modifier won’t do the job, a hyphen links the elements to form a compound modifier:

  • She holds a full-time job.
  • He is a good-looking man.

The Associated Press Stylebook, my primary grammar reference, has issued new recommendations for how to hyphenate compound modifiers.

AP reiterates that hyphens are joiners; using a hyphen avoids ambiguity by forming a single idea from two or more words. However, AP’s recent update suggests the fewer hyphens, the better.

Hyphenate well- combinations before a noun, but not after:

  • She is a well-known entrepreneur.
  • Among entrepreneurs, she is well known.
  • He is a well-liked teacher.
  • An experienced teacher, he is well liked.

No longer hyphenate compound modifiers following forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, were, has been, have been, had been):

  • The soft-spoken children entered the auditorium.
  • The children were soft spoken as they entered the auditorium.

But always hyphenate self- words:

  • The self-assured candidate was eager for his interview.
  • You could see that the candidate was self-assured.
  • We have many self-directed teams at work.
  • The team I joined was the last to become self-directed.

Compound modifiers hyphenated before nouns, verbs or adverb phrases generally are not hyphenated when they follow a noun or verb:

  • He has a full-time job.
  • He works full time.
  • She wants to honor his hard-earned accomplishment.
  • We understand why she calls his accomplishment hard earned.

Many two-word modifiers, especially those used as nouns, usually are understood without a hyphen:

third grade teacher | high school student | chocolate chip cookie | climate change report | real estate transaction | emergency room visit | parking lot entrance

Modifiers ending in ly do not require hyphens:

a quickly eaten sandwich | an extremely low margin | a highly contested race | a dimly lit hallway | a tightly packed suitcase  | a newly released report  |  a happily married couple

But remember to differentiate — and hyphenate — words ending in ly that are compound nouns:

family-owned business |  supply-chain management  | horsefly-infested barn

Even with updated guidelines, AP encourages writers to use a hyphen if needed for clarity or to avoid unintended meanings:

small-business owner | little-known song | high-powered executive | free-thinking philosophy | one-way street  |  fat-cat politician

Consider how these examples of more and most could be misinterpreted without a hyphen:

  • more unified voters: more voters who are unified
  • more-unified voters: voters who are unified to a greater degree
  • more mobile people: more people who are mobile
  • more-mobile people: people who have greater mobility
  • most complex cases: high number of complex cases
  • most-complex cases: cases with greatest complexity
  • most popular baby names: high number of popular baby names
  • most-popular baby names: baby names highest in popularity

Although hyphen use is not standard across all style guides, these latest AP recommendations conform, for the most part, with the Chicago Manual of Style and the style of the American Psychological Association.

For more examples of compound modifiers and how they can enhance creative or descriptive writing, see:

Compound Modifiers Abound in Descriptive Writing

4 Things to Remember About Compound Modifiers

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

4 thoughts on “When Does a Compound Modifier Need a Hyphen?

  1. AvatarEve Alyson Ishizuka

    I have to disagree with your reasoning for using champ versus chomp. One does NOT need teeth to bite. The closing of one’s jaws equals biting; ask any breastfeeding mom!

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