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…
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.
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.”
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.