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  • Compound adjectives

    Compound adjectives in English

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    What are adjectives?

    Adjectives are words that we use before nouns or after the verb be or a sensory verb (such as taste, look, smell, etc.) to describe objects, people, places, and other things.

    What are compound adjectives?

    Compound adjectives are combinations of two or more words that function collectively as a single descriptive unit. These multi-word adjectives are typically connected with hyphens to indicate that they work together as one idea. Take, for instance, the phrase a well-known actor. Here, well-known is a compound adjective formed by combining the adverb well with the past participle known to offer a precise characterisation of the actor.
     

    When should we use the hyphen?

    The hyphen should be used to connect the different words of a compound adjective when we use it before a noun, but when we use the adjective after the verb be or a sensory verb, the words often remain separate.

    • He is a well-known actor. 
    • This actor is well known for his impactful performances. 

    However, some common compound adjectives are consistently hyphenated. It’s a good idea to consult a dictionary or verify online.

    • Their relationship was short-lived.

    While English speakers might occasionally skip the hyphen, its correct use is crucial to prevent misunderstandings. Consider the difference in these sentences:

    • He is a large truck driver. (This means the driver himself is large.)
    • He is a large-truck driver. (This indicates he drives large trucks.)

    Another example:

    • He is an old book collector. (This implies the book collector is old.)
    • He is an old-book collector. (This means he is a collector of old books.)

    The presence or absence of the hyphen can shift meaning. In the latter example, the hyphen shows that old describes the books, not the collector.

    We can form compound adjectives from various word combinations. It’s crucial to note that when a compound adjective includes a noun as one of its components, the noun is always in the singular form. Why is this? Because adjectives in English don’t have plural forms, and this rule applies to compound adjectives as well. Here are the most common types of compound adjectives:
     

    Adjective + Present Participle

    • long-lasting: My phone has a long-lasting battery.
    • easy-going: Tom is an easy-going student.
    • good-looking: Sara has a good-looking boyfriend.
    • slow-moving: I am on a slow-moving train.
    • loose-fitting: I prefer wearing loose-fitting clothing. 

     

    Adjective + Past Participle

    • short-haired: I’ve seen that short-haired woman before.
    • old-fashioned: My father has very old-fashioned ideas.
    • short-lived: They had a short-lived relationship.
    • ready-made: I eat a lot of ready-made meals.
    • deep-fried: She ordered some deep-fried chicken. 

     

    Adjective + Noun

    • long-distance: John is a long-distance runner.
    • last-minute: It was a last-minute decision.
    • short-term: He signed a short-term contract.
    • full-length: She wore a full-length skirt.
    • high-quality: It is a high-quality product.

     

    Noun + Present Participle

    • time-consuming: It is a time-consuming task.
    • English-speaking: Australia is an English-speaking country.
    • record-breaking: It was a record-breaking achievement.
    • mouth-watering: She made us a mouth-watering meal.
    • thought-provoking: It was a thought-provoking lecture. 

     

    Noun + Past Participle

    • home-made: She brought us some home-made bread.
    • sun-dried: These sun-dried tomatoes are delicious.
    • middle-aged: My father is a middle-aged man.
    • wind-powered: John has a wind-powered boat.
    • grass-fed: I only eat grass-fed beef.

     

    Noun + Adjective

    • ice-cold: I feel like an ice-cold beer.
    • world-famous: He is a world-famous author.
    • sugar-free: Dan is on a sugar-free diet.
    • iron-rich: Spinach is an iron-rich vegetable.
    • cruelty-free: I only wear cruelty-free make up.

     

    Adverb + Past Participle

    • well-educated: She is a very well-educated woman.
    • highly-respected: He is a highly-respected man.
    • badly/well-behaved: They have two well-behaved boys.
    • brightly-lit: We sat in a brightly-lit room.
    • densely-populated: India is a densely-populated country.

     

    Number + Noun

    Number-noun adjectives are very common in English, especially to describe time, size, or features.

    • five-minute: Let’s take a five-minute break.
    • one-year: He signed a one-year contract
    • six-storey: I live in a six-storey building.
    • two-room: I live in a two-room flat.
    • five-day: I work a five-day week. 

    It’s important to remember that in number-noun combinations, you should write the number in full (unless it is an extremely large number) and keep the noun singular.

    • I had a 2-minutes break. blank
    • I had a two-minute break. blank
    • Ken has a 3-bedrooms house. blank
    • Ken has a three-bedroom house. blank

     

    Number + body part + -ed

    • eight-legged: Spiders are eight-legged insects.
    • one-eyed: A cyclops is a one-eyed creature.
    • one-armed: I met a one-armed man.
    • two-headed: I drew a two-headed monster.
    • three-horned: A rhinoceros is a three-horned animal. 

    We sometimes make compound adjectives using three or more words, though this is not as common. And, as with two-word compound adjectives, we use a hyphen to connect the words.

    • I have a two-year-old daughter.
    • They used state-of-the-art technology.