Compound adjectives
Crowd of people

Tomokje, studying English in The Netherlands, writes:

Sometimes when I read English newspapers or books I see some words with hyphens between them, for example densely-populated. I do not know what they are called, sometimes I do not know exactly what they mean. Finally, I would like to make them up by myself, but I don't know how. Could you please help me?

Roger Woodham replies:
  Words like densely-populated are compound adjectives and they are made up of two or more words, normally with hyphens between them. Something that is dense contains a lot of things or people in a small area. Thus a densely-populated town or city is one with a high population count within the city boundaries. A densely-wooded hill would be one that is difficult to get through because the trees are so close together.

adj / adv + past participle

Adjective or adverb plus past participle is one of the most common patterns for forming compound adjectives. Some common examples would include:

cold-blooded kind-hearted old-fashioned open-minded
brightly-lit deeply-rooted densely-populated well-behaved
  • Most animals are warm-blooded but all reptiles are cold-blooded.

  • He was a cold-blooded murderer and showed no emotion of any kind.

  • She lived in an old-fashioned house, but was kind-hearted and open-minded.

  • Nevertheless, she held deeply-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage.

  • The dimly- / brightly-lit streets in our town encourage / discourage burglars.

Note that adverb / past participle combinations when they are used with a copular verb like be or seem, and come after the noun they modify, are not hyphenated:

  • The streets in our town are dimly / brightly lit and encourage / discourage burglars.

There are sometimes many possible combinations, e.g. broad-minded, narrow-minded, absent-minded, strong-minded, as well as open-minded. It is partly a matter of knowing which adjectives or adverbs collocate or go with which participles and nouns. We have brightly-lit streets, but also brightly-coloured dresses or swimsuits or sweets.


Compound adjectives are regarded as productive features of English which means that use is not so restricted as it is in many categories of grammar. New combinations are always possible, so if you think something may work, try it out with your English-speaking friends, Tokmokje, and see if it is meaningful. For example, brightly-patterned curtains illustrates the productive nature of this combination, as would brightly-shining stars, and here we come to a new pattern, which is also very common:

Adj / adv / noun + present participle

Here are some common examples:

good-looking hard-wearing free-standing
far-reaching long-lasting never-ending
labour-saving mouth-watering record-breaking
  • The good-looking chef was dressed in hard-wearing clothing and sitting in front of a free-standing cooker.

  • The dishes he had prepared with all the labour-saving devices at his disposal were all mouth-watering.

  • We signed a long-lasting agreement for his services which we hoped would be never-ending.

Other common patterns for compound adjectives include:

  • noun + past participle: shop-soiled, tongue-tied, sun-dried,
  • noun + adjective: trouble-free, lead-free, world-famous,
  • adj + noun: deep-sea, full-length, last-minute,
  • number + noun: two-door, twenty-page, forty-mile.
  • When they refused to exchange the shop-soiled item, I was tongue-tied and didn't know what to say.

  • If you want trouble-free motoring, make sure you use only lead-free petrol.

  • The sun-dried tomatoes that we sell are world-famous.

  • She was wearing a full-length dress, quite unsuitable for deep-sea diving.

  • The forty-mile journey in the two-door, open-top convertible was ill-advised in such inclement weather.

Try out other combinations of these patterns for yourselves, e.g. four-door saloon, five-page document, well-advised, etc. Make a note of compound adjectives that you come across in your reading and note the way they are used with particular nouns.


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