It’s just one little hyphen, but when it comes to color combinations, figuring out whether it’s needed or not can give a copy editor fits. Read through these steps to find the answer.
1. Is the color listed in Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary or Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged? (If you don’t have access to an unabridged Webster’s, consider using the online version. It will tell you if the word is in the unabridged dictionary, though it won’t give you a definition.) (Clarified 10/28/13.)
YES: Treat it that way in all uses. NO: Read on to No. 2.
Examples of colors listed as two words in Webster’s (so are never hyphenated):
• baby blue
• brick red
• chocolate brown (added 10/28/13)
• coral pink (added 10/28/13)
• forest green
• hunter green
• lemon yellow
• lime green
• navy blue
• pea green
• powder blue
• royal blue
• royal purple
• sea green
• sky blue
• slate gray
• teal blue
Examples of colors hyphenated in Webster’s (so are always hyphenated):
• fire-engine red
2. Is it a two-color combination (such as “blue-green” or “orange-red”)?
YES: Hyphenate in all uses. NO: Read on to No. 3.
3. Is the color used as a noun or an adverb, with one part modifying the other, such as in the following sentences?
Stitch the outline in cherry red.
The sun shone yellowish red in the evening sky.
YES: Don’t hyphenate. NO: Read on to No. 4.
4. Is the color used as a compound adjective before a noun, such as in the following sentences?
The cherry-red chair creates a bright focal point.
The yellowish-red sun shone in the evening sky.
YES: Hyphenate. NO: Read on to No. 5.
5. Is the color combination used as a compound adjective after a noun, such as in the following sentences?
The chair is cherry red.
The sky appeared a brilliant yellowish red
YES: In general, leave as two words unless hyphenation is deemed necessary for clarity.
6. If the adjective immediately preceding a common color describes the particular hue, shade, or intensity, and could be used with many colors, do not hyphenate the color as a compound modifier.
Toss the light green pillow on the chair.
Let the pale blue pillow create a soft focal point.
The soft pink glassware sparkles in the sun.
7. In all other uses, apply standard rules of SIM style and grammar.
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