What Is a Compound Adjective?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A compound adjective is made up of two or more words (such as part-time and high-speed) that act as a single idea to modify a noun (a part-time employee, a high-speed chase). Also called a phrasal adjective or a compound modifier.

As a general rule, the words in a compound adjective are hyphenated when they come before a noun (a well-known actor) but not when they come after (The actor is well known).

Also, compound adjectives formed with an adverb ending in -ly (such as rapidly changing) are usually not hyphenated.

Examples and Observations

  • "You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn't. He fixed us."
  • "If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through."
  • "The general was meeting someone for dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant, not in the suburb of Nanterre, but close by."
  • "A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life."​ (William Arthur Ward)

Hyphenation With Compound Adjectives

"Interestingly, hyphenation is also used creatively to indicate that an idea that would normally be expressed by a phrase is being treated as a single word for communicative purposes because it has crystallized in the writer's mind into a firm, single concept. Thus, for example, the expression simple to serve is normally a phrase, just like easy to control. But it can also be used as a hyphenated word as in simple-to-serve recipe dishes..." (M&S Magazine 1992)

"Adverbs that do not end in -ly may take the hyphen to form a compound adjective. The reason is obvious. A fast-moving script suggests a roller-coaster plot while a fast-moving script might have pace but it is emotionally charged (i.e., emotionally moving) at the same time."

​​The Lighter Side of Compound Adjectives: Laser-Focused

"Will somebody explain to me why every focus is now laser-focused? Lasers can guide, ignite, heat, drive, and print, but focus? This is the hottest compound adjective around today, leaving all other focuses fuzzy. In Enron's 2000 annual report, the company claimed to be 'laser-focused on earnings per share,' at which point I should have become suspicious."

Also Known As

Phrasal adjective, unit modifier, compound modifier


  • Seabiscuit, 2003
  • Stephen Fry as General Melchett in "Private Plane." Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989
  • Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity. Richard Marek Publishers, 1980
  • Bruce Grundy, So You Want to be a Journalist? Cambridge University Press, 2007
  • William Safire, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time. Simon & Schuster, 2004
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Compound Adjective?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-compound-adjective-grammar-1689879. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is a Compound Adjective? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-compound-adjective-grammar-1689879 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Compound Adjective?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-compound-adjective-grammar-1689879 (accessed December 5, 2022).