Sort out these pain-in-the-butt adjective rules once and for all!
Hyphens. Such a tiny punctuation mark, yet hyphens can confound ESL students and L1 speakers alike. Don’t let these little dashes scare you—the rules for their use within multiple‑word adjectives are actually quite simple. It’s just a matter of placement within a sentence. Follow the rules below to achieve hyphenated-adjective perfection!
Use Hyphens Before Nouns
If the multiple‑word adjective comes before a noun, use hyphens. Examples:
- She gave me an up-to-date report.
- We used computer-generated images in our presentation.
- After the reading exercise, answer these follow-up questions.
This rule is especially common with TIME, MONEY, and DISTANCE. Note that adjectives never take an “s.” Examples:
- We have a five‑minute break in our morning class. (NOT five‑minutes break)
- The clerk handed me a 100‑dollar bill.
- I went for a 20‑kilometer run this morning.
What about using adverbs and adjectives together? Be careful here. Most adverb/adjective combinations will NOT be hyphenated. One common exception is with the adverb well. Examples:
- Lady Gaga is a very famous singer. (NOT very‑famous singer)
- It’s an environmentally friendly product. (NOT environmentally‑friendly)
- J.R.R. Tolkien is a well‑known author. (This is the exception.)
Don’t Use Hyphens After Verbs
When the multiple‑word adjective (or phrase involving a quantifier or adjective + noun) comes after the main verb (or is the main verb), do NOT use hyphens. Let’s take a look at the previous examples:
- Her report was up to date.
- The images in our presentation were computer generated.
- We followed up the reading exercise with comprehension questions.
- Our morning class break is five minutes. (Note: Now that we don’t need a hyphen, we must follow the normal rules for forming the plural, so we need to use an “s.”)
- The clerk handed me 100 dollars.
- I ran for 20 kilometers this morning.
- J.R.R. Tolkien is well known.
Use hyphens if the multiple‑word adjective comes before a noun, otherwise don’t use hyphens. Are there exceptions? Unfortunately, there are always exceptions. For example, the adjective good-looking is always hyphenated, no matter the position in the sentence. (A good-looking guy waved at me this morning. / He is good-looking.) However, I’d say that this rule works over 90% of the time.
I hope this blog post helped clarify this well‑known problem!