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Mini Lesson: Hyphenating Compound Adjectives

I've written before on the importance of syntax and the nuances conveyed by minor shifts in wording. But words on their own are insufficient, and there's a reason we've developed all sorts of extra marks to augment them. Using punctuation correctly is important not simply because "that's the rule," as some might believe. Rather, slight differences in how we use punctuation marks can significantly alter meaning, and therefore a reader's experience. Ensuring we can all understand the intended meaning is why the rules exist in the first place.

Today, I want to focus on the hyphen, specifically when it comes to compound adjectives. More and more, I see authors (and their editors and proofreaders) forgetting or misusing these hyphens.

I can hear you thinking, "What does it matter? Readers understand it either way!" While I could go on and on about the richer picture writers can create with a fuller toolbox, I'll try instead to illustrate the value of that one little line (-).

First up: what is a compound adjective? Generally speaking, it's an adjective—a descriptor—made up of more than one word. The first word usually modifies the second one, and combined they describe the noun that follows. For example, in "a six-page document," the compound adjective is "six-page," with six describing the (number of) pages, and the whole thing together describing the noun document.

So why do we need a hyphen? Because the words making up the compound adjective need to stay together to retain their meaning. Examples below will illustrate this more fully, but the basic rule you need to know is that compound adjectives before a noun should always be hyphenated.

With that out of the way, let's dive in. Picture if you will: a light brown table.

Got it?

Now picture a heavy brown table.

That's right, light in the first example refers most correctly to the table's weight. (In theory, it could also be a table for light, or made of light, but let's keep it simple for our purposes.) I would feel comfortable betting that at least half of you interpreted the first use of light as referring to the shade of brown. Why? Because we're becoming so used to people forgetting hyphens that we're conditioned to read combinations like "light brown" and "light-brown" as interchangeable, even though they aren't.
    If we really want to stress that light is describing the sturdiness of the table, we'd often add weight, using a distinct adjective: a lightweight table. However, remember that this is just one example and we don't always have the option of adding a clarification like that so easily.

Now consider if instead you were talking about a light jacket. If your main character (MC) grabs a light blue jacket on their way out the door, we should reliably know that the jacket is blue and that it's only a little chilly outside—the jacket is lightweight. If, however, your MC grabs a light-blue jacket, all we know is the color of the jacket, not how warm it is. And if they're grabbing a light-blue jacket that is also lightweight, you could say it's a light pale-blue jacket (or a lightweight light-blue jacket—grammatically correct, though awkward).
    Of course, you can also substitute pale-blue for a more specific color, but remember that if the color is two words, it also needs a hyphen when preceding a noun. For example: a sky-blue jacket; a royal-purple robe.

If your head is spinning a little bit, try this little trick: if you can't split up the words describing the noun without changing the meaning, you need a hyphen. Let's look at some examples:
  1. Our original example was a light brown table. If we split up the adjectives, we would get a light table that is brown, or a brown table that is light. It's a little awkward, but the meaning is clear. And if that's the meaning we want, we wouldn't use a hyphen.
  2. However, the table in #1 is brown. If you wanted its color to be lighter, then it would be a light-brown table (hyphenated).
  3. How about a purple skinned fruit? Splitting these adjectives, we'd get a skinned fruit that is purple or a purple fruit that is skinned. Makes sense, as would a skinned purple fruit. 
  4. But what if you wanted to describe specifically that the fruit's skin was purple? I think you know the answer: a purple-skinned fruit, meaning it can be any color inside but the skin is definitely purple.
  5. If the compound isn't made of adjectives, the need for a hyphen is even clearer. A sky jacket that is blue is very different from a sky-blue jacket. And "a blue jacket that is sky" simply makes no sense.
    • If you're asking yourself what a "sky jacket" is, you're not alone. But I could imagine characters who fly routinely, whether in the future or on a different planet, having a "sky jacket," the same way we have water shoes.

Hopefully it's clear now why it's important to make intentional choices in your writing, even when it comes to something as small as a hyphen. But there's one more compound adjective type I'd like to touch on briefly: multiple colors. 

In some cases, one color modifies the other: a blue-green scarf. For many, it would be a no-brainer to use a hyphen if that read "bluish-green," but "blue-green" is correct as well. What color is this scarf? A bluish green.
    Remember, hyphens are required when the compound adjective precedes the noun. If you're saying, "the scarf is a bluish green," no hyphen is necessary.

What if instead you wrote "a blue-and-green scarf"? Then we'd know the scarf is both blue and green (maybe striped, maybe polka-dotted, etc.). Note that the order of the colors is interchangeable, so we could write "green-and-blue scarf" and retain the same meaning.

So why can't you write "a blue and green scarf"? Let's go back to our tip of splitting the adjectives: "a blue scarf that is green" doesn't make sense.

Furthermore, what if we had more than one scarf? Imagine a store, selling scarves. What color are they?
  • Blue and green scarves: some scarves are green; some are blue
    • Another way to say this is that the store sells blue scarves and green scarves. Like before, if you can split the adjectives this way and keep your intended meaning, you don't need a hyphen.
  • Blue-and-green scarves: all of the scarves are both blue and green.
    • Note that it's correct (and necessary) to hyphenate multiple words in a row like this, even if it looks a little weird at first. A pet peeve of mine is seeing errors such as "black and white photos." If you have black photos and white photos, you might need a better camera, so make sure to add those hyphens!

It may seem pedantic, but words and punctuation are your tools for communicating with readers, for creating a vibrant world they can picture, and for drawing them into the story you mean to tell. The more dextrous you are in wielding those tools, the more nuance and impact your writing will have. Hopefully today we've sharpened one of the tools in your collection!

Questions? Suggestions for future "Mini Lessons"? Post them in the comments!