Modifiers: Compound modifiers

March 28, 2002: Issue 16

SIM STYLE & GRAMMAR: When do I hyphenate multiple adjectives before a noun?
Anytime two or more adjectives modifying a noun are intended to work together as a single unit, called a compound modifier, hyphenate them. (Note: Occasionally, the compound modifier falls after a verb, usually “to be.”)
correct: the arch-top windows
correct: old-fashioned wainscoting
 correct: The kitchen was finally up-to-date.

But be careful. Multiple adjectives before a noun don’t always constitute a compound modifier. Sometimes, one of those adjectives is actually working independently with the noun, and adding a hyphen would change the meaning. (Note: If there’s a chance a reader may not understand the intended meaning, it’s probably best to rewrite the sentence for clarity.) Check out these examples:
• The new homeowner orientation is Saturday. (The orientation is new, intended for homeowners.)
• The new-homeowner orientation is Saturday. (The orientation is intended for new homeowners.)

SIM style recognizes some compound modifiers as well-known phrases that require no hyphenation. You’ll find a partial list in the Hyphens section in the SIM Stylebook, but others may be a judgment call.
correct: a glass block wall
correct: the folk art collection

One final point: Keep an eye out for modifiers that end in “ly.” They are generally adverbs and not hyphenated.
incorrect: the expertly-decorated showhouse
correct: the expertly decorated showhouse

For more information, see Hyphens section in the SIM Stylebook.

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