by Annette Lyon
Following up on my post about overusing adjectives, we received a reader question:
Ages and weights? To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.
For example: nineteen year old eighty pound girl
Hyphens? Comma? Help!
Here's a relatively simple rule of thumb for compound adjectives:
1) Groups that belong together need hyphens.
2) Connect groups with a comma.
3) Other adjectives need only a space.
Let's discuss #1:
If two or more words function as a single image, it's almost as if they're one word, so they need to be connected with a hyphen for clarity.
In the example above, it's pretty simple to distinguish which words are working together, so here are the groupings:
nineteen year old
Obviously you wouldn't be lumping "old and "eighty" in the same grouping, because they aren't describing the same thing. "Old" is part of explaining "nineteen" and "eighty" clearly belongs with "pound."
Remember that not all groupings will have multiple words. You could split a phrase up this way:
"Tall" and "ugly" belong in separate groups because the two adjectives are functioning alone, with equal weight. You could describe the guy as the "tall dude" or as the "ugly dude," and both make sense.
Putting "tall" and "ugly" into the same group would mean he's some funky, tall version of ugly.
If your final groupings have more than one word, connect them with hyphens:
Note that "girl" still stands alone. It's the thing we're doing all the describing about, so she doesn't have anything to connect to.
In our second example, we have no hyphens at all. It's still:
Now, if we were trying to say that tall is ugly (or there really is a kind of ugly unique to being tall), we could use a hyphen and make it:
That would be an awfully weird image . . .
One exception to this rule: you don't hyphenate after an -ly adjective, so this would be correct, without any hyphen even though the two adjectives are working together:
The slightly overgrown grass needed mowing.
On to #2:
Connect groups with a comma. Each "group" (whether it's one word or several) describes the object equally. Test the sentence by flipping the order of the adjectives around. Or throw in "and" between them. If you can do either, then a comma is correct.
nineteen-year-old, eighty-pound girl
(You could also say: eighty-pound, nineteen-year-old girl)
tall, ugly dude
(You could also say: ugly, tall dude OR tall and ugly dude)
#3: Other adjectives need only a space.
Say that the first adjective isn't part of the same group as the second one (so you wouldn't use a hyphen).
It's also not describing the object with equal weight, so you can't use a comma.
Instead the first adjective is separate, and the second one is already attached the noun. In this case, you don't connect them with anything besides a space:
The cute little baby.
See? We're calling the little baby "cute."
You can't flip the two adjectives (or throw in "and") or you come up with something completely different:
the little, cute baby
the cute and little baby
(Yes, the baby is little and cute, but that's not what we meant.)
Likewise, "cute" isn't acting as a way to explain "little," so you would NOT say:
(There's no such thing as "cute-little.")
Now for a review. Ask:
Are all the adjectives describing the final object with equal weight? (Can you flip them around or add "and" between them?)
IF YES, USE A COMMA: The big, red car was parked out front.
(Or: The red, big car . . . OR The big and red car . . .)
Is the adjective part of a bigger group?
IF YES, USE A HYPHEN: The cherry-red car was parked out front.
(It doesn't work to say, "The cherry car," since "cherry" needs to be attached to "red" to make sense.)
Is the first adjective describing the next adjective and noun as a separate group?
IF YES, USE A SPACE: The cute little baby laughed.
Adjectives can be a powerful tool. Be aware that punctuating them incorrectly can mean things you never intended.
Take this example, where leaving out a comma changes the implication:
The lazy freckled writer didn't want to proof his manuscript.
(In other words, there are lots of other freckled writers, but we're discussing only the lazy one.)
Add the comma, and suddenly it's one writer we're discussing, a person both lazy and freckled:
The lazy, freckled writer didn't want to proof his manuscript.
Either one works, but you need to know which one you mean.
Punctuation is like magic; you can create nuances of meaning by adding these little marks into your work. Knowing how to use them well is almost an art, guiding your reader like a conductor leads a symphony: where to pause, where the emphasis should be, where to stop.
Learning how to wield the baton is well worth the effort.
Read here for more about using hyphens with compound adjectives and using commas with adjectives.