Hyphenated Modifiers: A Guide to Effective Usage

A hyphenated modifier gives more information about a noun. A compound modifier may be hyphenated to convey its intended meaning. In this case, it becomes a hyphenated modifier.

What are Compound Modifiers?

A compound modifier is any word that consists of two or more modifiers, usually combined by a hyphen. Compound modifiers give a detailed description of the noun to which they are attached.

They are also called “hyphenated modifiers” in the publishing industry.

Compound modifiers indicate that more than one noun dimension is being modified. What differentiates a compound modifier from a simple adjective is the addition of an adverb. A compound modifier consists of one adjective and one adverbial phrase, acting together to modify a noun or gerund.

In the sentence “John was terribly embarrassed,” the compound modifiers “terribly” and “embarrassed” modify the noun ‘John.’

The hyphen is one of the two techniques employed in some compound modifiers. The other technique is the use of two modifiers. However, not all compound modifiers need to be hyphenated; there are a few exceptions.

The Rules of Using Hyphenated Modifiers

In good writing, compound modifiers consist of two or more words that explain a single concept. Some compound modifiers—like hyphenated modifiers—are formed by combining two or more words and linking them with a hyphen.

Sometimes, it is difficult to determine whether a compound modifier should be hyphenated or not.

There are a few rules to follow. It would be best to hyphenate a compound modifier that starts with the same root letters. This will show the connection between the words in the compound modifier.

The following rules and examples will help you understand and determine whether to use a hyphen with a compound modifier or not.

1. When it comes before the noun/pronoun

A compound modifier should be hyphenated when placed before the noun or pronoun that it modifies to give the sentence a precise meaning.

Example: Mary has a two-year-old daughter (The compound modifier ‘two-year-old‘ is hyphenated because it comes before the noun ‘daughter’).

2. When it comes after the noun/pronoun

A compound modifier should not be hyphenated when placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies.

Example: Mary’s daughter is two years old. (the compound modifier, ‘two years old,‘ is not hyphenated in this case because it comes after the noun ‘daughter.’)

3. When it includes adverbs that end in -ly

Compound modifiers that include adverbs that end in -ly should not be hyphenated. This rule also applies to modifiers that have the adverb ‘very.’ For example,

Correct: Our school booked a widely known speaker to grace our graduation.

Incorrect: Our school booked a widely-known speaker to grace our graduation.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Bottom line

Hyphenated modifiers are words that function as adjectives in a sentence. To modify it, they come together as a unit before or after a noun. Although some compound modifiers do not require a hyphen, others are more easily understood and can be aesthetically pleasing to readers when hyphenated.

Knowing the rules and applying them in writing is essential to ensure clarity and a seamless flow.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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