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 native 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!
1. Use hyphens before nouns.
If the multiple-word adjective comes before a noun, use hyphens.
- 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.”
- 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.
- Lady Gaga is a very famous singer. (NOT very-famous singer)
- The second presenter was a less interesting speaker. (NOT less-interesting)
- J.R.R. Tolkien is a well-known author. (This is the exception.)
2. 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!
Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus. Website: http://editingtoat.com Twitter: @tanyatrusler