4 Easy Steps in Forming Compound Adjectives

Have you ever wondered what those hyphens “– “are those you often see connect two words? Do you want to know how or when to use them? Today, you will not only learn about hyphens but actually more about the other form of an adjective. This is the compound adjective where you see hyphens being commonly used.

So, let’s review the basics first.

What is an adjective?

It describes the noun. It gives the noun more character and offers more details about it. Since it is used to identify individual people, places, and unique things, it is positioned before the noun that it modifies. One sentence can contain more than one adjective.

What is a noun?

It is the name of a person, place, or thing. Examples are girl, toy, Ben, Gail, house, mountain, train, courage, fear, love, river, bird, and more. So when you put a word in front of a noun to describe it, that’s an adjective.

A compound adjective is when two or more words are combined to describe the same noun. Since it is a combination of more than two words that functions as one word, it has a hyphen. Look at these examples to distinguish what makes a compound adjective.


Here are simple descriptions or simple adjectives:

  • good girl (adjective = good)
  • tall girl (adjective = tall)
  • sweet girl (adjective = sweet)


Now, here are compound adjectives:

  • short-haired girl (short-haired = two words combined and are together used as one adjective to describe the girl)
  • good-mannered girl
  • left-handed girl


Here are more sentences to help demonstrate what a compound adjective is:

  1. A Chinese who speaks English is an English-speaking Chinese.
  2. A car with four wheels is a four-wheel car.
  3. An animal with four legs is a four-legged animal.
  4. A building with five stories is a five-story building.

Also, you may have noticed that a compound adjective comes BEFORE a noun and has a hyphen. See the following:

*I have a German-speaking friend.

(German-speaking = compound adj.)   (friend = noun)


*A long-time friend came by to see us this morning.

(long-time = compound adj.)    (friend = noun)


If you’re not using a compound adjective, the meaning of the sentence becomes entirely different. Look at these examples:


“a man eating a shark”

This shows that the man eats sharks.


“a man-eating shark”

This describes a shark that eats people.


Before we go on, note that this is the most common mistake in writing compound adjectives.


*My son is eight years old.

The adjective is after the noun, so no hyphen is needed here.


*I have an eight-year-old son.

This is wrong. With compound adjectives, don’t use the plural form because there’s the hyphen already.


*I have an eight-year-old son.

-This is the correct sentence.



1) Adjective + participle, or Adverb + participle

Participles are verbs with –ing and are used as a noun or adjective in a sentence.  It is also a past tense with –ed, or past tense of an irregular verb.


*Example of the participle with –ing:

  • working mother

*Example of the participle with –ed:

  • burned toast

*Example of irregular verbs:

  • think = thought
  • know = known
  • eat = ate / eaten

The following are compound adjectives that use participle:

  • good-looking
  • long-lasting
  • sweet-smelling
  • white-haired
  • well-known
  • half-eaten

Body parts can be used in compound words by adding only –ed.

  • body = bodied
  • hair = haired
  • eye = eyed
  • nose = nosed
  • lip = lipped
  • leg = legged

So, by adding –ed to body parts, you turn them into a participle.


Compound Adj.:

  • He’s a good-looking young man.

Simple Adj.:

  • The young man is good looking.


Other examples…

  • I see a round-bodied mammal.
  • My pet is a brown-haired monkey.
  • Sara is a beautiful, blue-eyed baby.
  • My mom wears a sweet-smelling perfume.

2) Noun + participle

Mosquitoes are blood-sucking insects.

(blood = noun)  (sucking = participle)


Sonya performed a heart-breaking song.

(heart = noun)  (breaking = participle)

3) Number + noun

Here, we use numbers to describe another noun. So this type of combination becomes an adjective to describe that noun.


Compound Adjective:

  • She gave her boss a 25-page report.


Without hyphen:

  • Her report is 25 pages.


Compound Adjective:

  • ACE Contractors was hired to construct a 26-story building.


Without hyphen:

  • ACE Contractors was hired to construct a building with 26 stories.

Compound Adjective:

  • My aunt is making a 4-layer cake for Cindy’s wedding.

Without hyphen:

  • My aunt is making a cake of 4 layers for Cindy’s wedding.

4) number + measure

With this combination, the measure for time, area, volume, weight, or height is used.

  • He’s holding a 14-foot stick. (see that we don’t use ‘feet’)
  • Old people in that village can’t endure the minus 2-degree temperature in the evenings.
  • Dad is working a 9-hour shift at the factory.
  • Cherry is climbing a 36-foot rock.

The rule used for hyphens is the same one that applies to plural forms: Use singular when there’s a hyphen and if placed BEFORE the noun.

*Josh is carrying a 10-kilogram sack of wheat.

Use plural when there is NO hyphen and if placed AFTER the noun.

*Josh is carrying a sack of wheat that weighs 10 kilograms.

Please note that in IELTS Writing, compound adjectives are count as one word.


If you want to use a compound adjective, just remember that it is made up of two or three words that together function as one word. These are two or three words connected by a hyphen and work altogether as one adjective to describe the same noun. You will see more of these adjectives as your experience with English increases.

I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.