Compound Adjectives

By Ryan Hickey + updated on February 10th, 2010

Some rules of writing are simple, straightforward, and easy to follow. Capitalize the first letter of a sentence and proper nouns. Avoid fragments and run-ons. Make sure your subjects and verbs match up.

Others, however, are more complicated and convoluted.  Take the following sentence, for example:

Some people think that you must be a financial genius to apply for a small business loan, but in reality, a regular person can do so provided they take the time to prepare.

That sentence, though it may seem technically sound, actually contains two mistakes, both of which EssayEdge editors see examples of on a regular basis. I’d like to focus on the first today and the second in our next post.

The first mistake involves the phrase, “small business loan.” If you consider this phrase for a second, you might notice that it can actually be interpreted two different ways:

1. A business loan that is small

2. A loan for a small business

How is the reader to know which interpretation is correct? Without clarification, this statement remains vague. In this instance, I don’t have to guess which meaning is correct; I wrote the sentence, and was referring to a loan for a small business. That said, how can I make that clear?

The solution to this problem involves using a hyphen. “Small business” is functioning as a compound adjective. Thus, the correct punctuation for such a phrase is “small-business loan.” When written this way, the reader can clearly see that the loan is for a small business.

Now, there are actually many different rules that apply to compound adjectives. You can’t just hyphenate everything. Thus, keep in mind the following rules when dealing with compound adjectives.

  1. Compound adjectives should only be hyphenated when they occur before the noun they modify.
    1. A blue-eyed girl sat at the table across from me.
    2. A girl who was blue eyed sat at the table across from me.
  2. Don’t use a hyphen after adverbs (it might help to think of this as not using a hyphen after words that end in –ly), even if they are seemingly part of a compound adjective.
    1. It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust after I entered the brightly lit room.
    2. Softly played music echoed throughout the cavernous hall.
  3. If the adjectives are capitalized, italicized, or in quotation marks, don’t use a hyphen.
    1. I purchased Romeo and Juliet tickets for tomorrow night’s show.
    2. My mother turned her head and gave me a stern “stop that right now” glare.

Keep those rules in mind when using adjectives, and you’ll avoid making a surprisingly common grammar misstep.

Have you found the second mistake in our sample sentence yet? If not, here’s a hint: it involves a pronoun. We’ll take a closer look at that writing issue next time.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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