What is a Compound Adjective? Definition & Examples

Compound adjective definition: A compound adjective is a single adjective that uses more than one word to form the compound adjective.

What is a Compound Adjective?

A compound adjective is an adjective, which means it modifies nouns.

Compound adjectives are made up of more than one word, usually two (However, there is no actual limit to how many words may make up a compound adjective.)

Examples of Compound Adjectives

Compound adjective examples Below are 10 compound adjectives. Of course, this list isn’t anywhere near exhaustive, as the list is virtually limitless.

  • next-door neighbor
  • English-speaking student
  • high-school student
  • six-month-old kitten
  • blue-eyed boy
  • well-behaved child
  • open-minded individual
  • well-rounded tax plan
  • strong-willed businessman
  • brand-new motorcycle

Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

sentences with compound adjectives Compound adjectives are almost always hyphenated. When two adjectives come together to form one adjective, they need to be hyphenated.

Examples:

  • man-eating bear
  • high-school student
  • blue-eyed beauty

The only time a compound adjective is not hyphenated includes when it contains an adverb plus an adjective or past participle.

Examples:

  • fully developed paragraph
  • somewhat hesitant response
  • completely enclosed area

The tendency to hyphenate all compound adjectives is different from compound nouns since compound nouns are not always hyphenated.

It is necessary to hyphenate compound adjectives because without the hyphenation, the modifier would be read differently. Let’s look at this concept using our above examples.

Examples:

  • Incorrect: We encountered a man eating bear.
    • This sentence reads as: We encountered a man who was eating a bear. This is not the intended meaning of the sentence.
  • Correct: We encountered a man-eating bear.
    • This sentence reads: We encountered a bear who eats men. This is the intended meaning of the sentence.
  • Incorrect: She was a high school student.
    • This sentence reads as: She was a school student who was also high. This is not the intended meaning of the sentence.
  • Correct: She was a high-school student.
    • This sentence reads: She was a student in high school. This is the intended meaning of the sentence.

Compound Adjective vs. Multiple Adjectives

compound adjectives rulesWhen a compound adjective is hyphenated, it reads as one adjective.

Sometimes, the writer intends for more than one adjective (multiple adjectives) to be separated. In this sense, the writer uses a comma to separate the adjectives.

Examples:

  • Compound: It was an eerie-green lake.
    • Here, the hyphen makes the two words one adjective. The color of the lake is eerie-green.
  • Multiple: It was an eerie, green lake.
    • Here, the comma makes the two words two separate adjectives. The lake is eerie, and it is green.
  • Compound: He was a good-looking man.
    • Here, the hyphen makes the two words one adjective to describe the man as good-looking.
  • Multiple: He was a good, looking man.
    • Here, the separation does not really make sense. This sentence reads that the man is a good man and a looking man.

A good trick to determine if your sentence is called for a compound adjective or multiple adjectives is to substitute and read aloud the word and for the comma.

If the sentence still makes sense, you can use multiple adjectives. If it doesn’t, it might be better to use a compound.

For example,

  • He is a good-looking man.
  • He is a good, looking man.

Read this sentence aloud He is a good and looking man. As we mentioned above, this doesn’t make sense, so it’s obvious that the sentence calls for a compound adjective.

Other English Compounds

Compound adjectives aren’t the only compound in English. There are actually quite a few.

Compound Subject

compound nouns and adjectivesWhat is a compound subject? A compound subject is a subject of a main clause. A compound subject includes more than one noun.

Examples:

  • Shane and Joel played together.
    • Compound subject: Shane and Joel
  • Apples, oranges, and bananas are my favorite fruits.
    • Compound subject: Apples, orange, and bananas

Compound Noun

What is a compound noun? A compound noun is a noun just like other nouns: it is a person, place, or thing. But, a compound noun is a noun made up of more than one word.

Examples:

  • basketball
  • housework
  • top hat

Compound Sentence

20 examples of compound sentencesWhat is a compound sentence? A compound sentence contains more than one independent clause and can be joined in a several different ways.

Examples:

  • Joined with a comma and a conjunction:
    • I broke my arm, and it was painful.
  • Joined with a semicolon:
    • I broke my arm; it was painful.
  • Joined with a dash:
    • I broke my arm—it was painful.

Compound Modifier

What is a compound modifier? A compound modifier is a type of compound adjective. Compound modifiers usually contain two adjectives joined with a hyphen.

However, some compound modifiers include an adverb plus an adjective. There is no hyphen when an adjective is the first word.

Examples with two adjectives:

  • brown-eyed girl
  • yellow-bellied man
  • top-secret information

Examples with adverb plus adjective:

  • slightly inflated balloon
  • thoroughly destroyed toy
  • fully drafted design

Summary: What Are Compound Adjectives?

Define compound adjective: the definition of compound adjective is a phrase or set of words taken as a unit to modify a noun.

In summary, a compound adjective is,

  • an adjective that modifies a noun
  • made up of more than one word
  • usually hyphenated