Compound Modifiers

By Daniel Scocco

The compound modifier is my very favorite piece of the English language. It’s a hobby of mine to go around hyphenating word groupings that are modifying unbeknownst to them. Once you learn what it’s all about, you’ll do the same. But, what is a compound modifier, you ask. Well, let me tell you…

The rule

Which would you rather read? “She looked up at the green sky and shrunk away from the white lightning” or “She looked up at the eerie-green sky and shrunk away from the white-hot lightning“. A compound modifier refers to two or more words expressing a single concept. Regular adjectives modify nouns all the time, but a compound modifier goes much further.

His yellow-green teeth were visible beneath a salt-and-pepper mustache.

The words yellow and green, and salt and pepper are adjectives modifying the nouns teeth and mustache. Since they appear before the noun, they are hyphenated. If they followed the noun, they would no longer be hyphenated.

From underneath his mustache, which looked like salt and pepper, you could see his teeth of yellow and green.


Exceptions

The only time the compound modifier is not hyphenated ahead of the noun is if the word very or an adverb ending in ly is used. For instance: “The very dark sky hovered over us” versus “The raven-black sky hovered over us.”

Sometimes the compound modifier does keep the hyphenation after the noun – when it follows a form of the verb “to be”. For example: “The soup was water-thin, but delicious all the same.”

More examples

The shelves were buckling under the weight of dust-covered books.

Books covered in dust filled the buckling shelves.

Books, which were dust-covered, filled the sprawling shelves.

We followed the man through a poorly lit corridor.

The room we entered was well-lit.

We entered a well-lit room.

We followed him into a room, well lit with candles and a fire.

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27 Responses to “Compound Modifiers”

  • Krissy

    Fantastic! I absolutely love compound modifiers, but I never use them because I am not sure how. Now I know. Thanks!

    P.S. Found your site while Stumbling and I love it!

  • Daniel

    Krissy, thanks for the nice words.

    Hope to see you around again.

  • Dana Mark

    Once again, great post. I did well in English classes in High School and College, but I never learned some of these things. Thank you for continuing my education!

  • Maeve

    The best statement of this usage I’ve seen. Thanks.

    I take exception to one of your examples, however:
    “She looked up at the green sky and shrunk away from the white lightning.”

    Until that silly Rick Moranis movie, the simple past of “shrink” was “shrank.” Shrink, shrank, have shrunk.

    Hmm. I think there’s a blog topic here.

    Maeve

  • thangtran

    thanks to this website, i’ve learned benefit lessons.

  • James Wintle

    I disagree with the explanation of compound modifiers following any form of the verb “to be”; you should never use a hyphen in these circumstances as it is unecessary. For example simply: “the soup was water thin”. Otherwise keep up the good work! Thanks.

  • Blair Thurman

    Compound words that together have one specific meaning—that is to say, words that have to be together to make sense—do not get hyphenated. For instance, “high school.” High school is one thing, a compound noun. While I often see “He is a high-school student,” that is incorrect. Those two words do not have to be joined to act as one modifier; they are already one modifier. There are many such examples, often incorrectly punctuated.

  • Raynell A. Inojosa

    Thank you for the info. I was able to have a more clear explanation regarding the compound modifiers when I presented my report in English. Good day!

  • Solange

    Okay, here is one that is giving me grief! I work as a medical transcriptionist and we adhere to some pretty strict rules about the use of hyphens however, here is the statement with my dilemna:

    This revealed the presence of severe right neural foraminal narrowing with encroachment upon the exiting right C7 nerve root.

    The last 5 words are where I am stumped! I cannot make up my mind, but I am starting to think that C7-nerve-root is the choice I need to make.

    Help anyone!

  • Blair Thurman

    Don’t hyphenate. See my previous post (No. 7). It applies here.

  • Solange

    Thank you, that is what I thought! Thanks for confirmation, I appreciate it!

  • Stuart Taylor

    I don’t agree with Blair’s view of hyphenation. The rule that applies to applying the hyphen is to ask “what”. For example what type of student is he? Tall, small, older, younger etc. If he is a high school student he could be 2.5 metres tall (high) so is he a high school student? Or a tall school student or an older school student – these two would be correct. Therefore we are describing the student. Another example would be say a grey wet day. This is correct but if it is a blue grey wet day it would be correct to say blue-grey wet day. Obviously we cannot have two colours at same time.

  • Blair Thurman

    Stuart makes some interesting points, but I’m going to refute them nonetheless (while accepting that English is full of problematic grammar guidelines). First, the first example: a high (tall) student. No one (at least in America) would use “high” for “tall.” “High” when modifying a person would pretty much only mean “stoned” and in any case, calling someone a ‘school student’ is redundant; a ‘tall student’ would suffice. And while not perfect solution, commas can be used if there is confusion: a tall, high school student; a tall, bright, stoned, high school student; however in this case, writing that someone is a “tall high school student” would not likely be misconstrued. So at least in this case, I see no problem with not hyphenating the compound noun “high school.”
    As for the second example, of course we would hyphenate ‘blue’ and ‘gray’ since together they do not comprise a compound noun which is our topic. There is no such thing as a “blue gray” so there is no conflict.

  • Stuart Taylor

    I take and accept your point. Here in New Zealand we follow British English but due to the internet and Mr Microsoft, American styles and spelling is creeping in. The offical language in Parliament follows the Westminster system so all legislation etc, follows these rules. Americans have in many cases modified the British English but equally have retained some older spellings such as color (colour in NZ). I agree that commas can be a separater and the uasge in your text would be correct here along the correct use of the semicolon. The point I was making is that in NZ schools the test for hyphens is that which I mentioned. I think in the widest concept English is now universal language and is contiuning to evole – more so than any other language.

    I think the issue is do we keep it “pure” as many would like or allow it to change? Consequently the grammatical styles and usage will change. NZ Courts now accept this and no longer require evidence to meet and exact style.

    Thanks for your constructive comments.

  • Carol

    Why am I seeing commas and periods placed outside of quotation marks?

    Are there exceptions to the rule that I am unaware of? If so, what exception are we talking about?

    The only punctuation that goes outside of quotation marks, with the exception of the occasional question mark, are colons and semi-colons.

    I teach grammar, spelling and punctuation, and I am always telling my students to put commas and periods inside quote marks, yet they get online and see something completely contradictory to what I am teaching. And this is supposed to be a writing site. I’m confused. : (

  • Solange

    You may teach English, but not in Canada or the U.K. We maintain punctuation outside quotation marks, unlike the Americans who prefer to use them inside the quotation marks. Seeing as this website (and many others for that matter) reach far and wide around the globe, you are bound to see differences. You have your preference and we have ours. The U.S. is only 1 country, whereas there are 53 Commonwealth countries. We still spell words with extra vowels too and typically use the letter “s” versus the letter “z” in some words. We also pronounce the letter “z” zed, whereas you pronounce it zee.

    With all due respect your language has evolved in a different direction, but it originated in England…we all need to keep an open mind when communicating globally. In our Canadian schools, we teach our children the difference between Canadian and American spelling and grammar so that they are aware.

  • Carol

    I didn’t realize the site originated outside the U.S. It is something I must keep in mind when turning to the Internet for information. Yes, apparently there are differences. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I truly had no idea!

    As they say, you learn something new every day.

    I apologize for assuming something without knowing the facts.

    This is something I will share with my students, who repeatedly put periods and commas outside the quote marks. : ( They have no excuse — they were educated in American schools. : )

  • Craig Magnus

    I’m in a quandary. How should I hyphenate the following sentence?

    She wore a pair of platinum and one carat diamond dangle earrings.

  • Miragi

    I have my own hyphen conundrum. Can you tell me which of these is correct, the one with or the one without hyphens:

    Growing 12- to 24-inches tall,

    or

    Growing 12 to 24 inches tall,

    I have looked under AP style guidelines, but have come up clueless. If you would happen to know what AP rule this would fall under, that, too, would rock 🙂 Thanks!

  • Solange

    IMHO Your first instinct was correct and a suspensive hyphen is required here, as you could say either 12-inches tall or 24-inches tall, hence the 12- to 24-inches tall. Not sure what the AP Style Guideline is; however, as a medical transcriptionist I use the AHDI Book of Style. Best of luck in your writing.

  • Wilf

    Do speech marks have the same meaning as quotation marks ?

  • scott

    The way I was taught it was that you hyphenate if the first adjective actually modifies the second, but not if it directly modifies the noun or an adverb.

    thus

    a yellow-green shirt is telling you what shade of green

    but

    a yellow and green shirt is talking about 2 separate shades

  • bill

    What about this one: water pollution control infrastructure.

    Are any of those modifiers hyphenated? Thanks.

  • Blair Thurman

    I would say no hyphens

  • Katie Mo

    I think I understand the rules as they relate to compound modifiers occurring before nouns. But since there were no examples given of compound modifiers occurring after the noun, let me pose two exemplars:

    health care decision-making or health care decision making

    (My hunch is the former as “health care” is a noun).

    medical decision-making or medical decision making

    (my hunch is the latter since “medical” is an adjective).

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Kate

    One of the examples in this post is incorrect. Coordinate adjectives only are used as compound modifiers. If there is a hierarchy to the adjectives, they do not get hyphenated. Most commonly, this comes in to play with color.

    An easy test: flip flop the adjectives. If it still makes sense, then you can hyphenated them. Your example, “eerie-green sky” fails this test. One wouldn’t usually say “green eerie sky”. Another example: “the old blue guitar” doesn’t make sense when it is “the blue old guitar” so they are not coordinate adjectives and do not get hyphenated.

  • Mike

    I’d rather read, “She looked…and shrank away…”. But, I’m just a grumpy whiny old man who still remembers being taught by Miss Kerstetter that she must have shrunk away.

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