When to Use Compound Modifiers

Written by on December 14, 2017 in Blog, Careers, Grammar, resume tips, Resumes with 0 Comments

When to Use Compound Modifiers on Résumés

Compound modifiers play an important part in the English language, particularly when written. Many people pay no attention to them, but it’s important to know when to use compound modifiers—especially on résumés—because some of the people who screen résumés do pay attention. And of all the places where compound modifiers are used, I think résumés and cover letters are the most frequent.

A compound modifier is a string of two or more words that modify a noun. They usually consist of adjectives, but can also contain adverbs and nouns. Résumé summaries (which I don’t agree with) are typically rife with them. Some common examples of when to use compound modifiers are:

  • Hands-on
  • World-class
  • High-volume
  • High-precision
  • Best-in-class
  • Close-tolerance
  • Long-term
  • Leading-edge
  • Self-motivated (but not highly motivated—see exceptions)When to use compound modifiers
Producing pills requires high-volume manufacturing

How Do You Know When to Use Compound Modifiers?

Basic Rules

Hyphenate a compound modifier when it comes before a noun, and don’t hyphenate it when it comes after a noun (There are exceptions). The list above shows a few examples found on resumes.

Another way to tell is to see if both words can describe the word and still make sense. Sometimes neither one can and sometimes only one can.

Typically, you hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. If it comes after the noun, though, it is usually not hyphenated. A few examples of when to use compound modifiers and when not to are below.

  • She rented an off-campus apartment.
  • She lived off campus.
  • Disk drives involve high-volume manufacturing.
  • Disk drives are manufactured in high volume.


  • She was in a long-term relationship. (In this example, long-term describes relationship.)

Separately, though, it wouldn’t make sense. She was in a long relationship. Or she was in a term relationship.

  • He turned in a ten-page report to his boss.

Note that it’s not a ten report, nor a page report, but a ten-page report.

Sometimes the missing hyphen changes the meaning of what you’re trying to say. Consider the following sentence, with and without the hyphen.

  • My cousin is a high school teacher.
  • My cousin is a high-school teacher.

In the first case, he’s a school teacher who’s “high.” In the second case, he teaches classes to students in high school. (It’s important to note that many people consider “high school” along with things like “ice cream” to be so common that a hyphen is not required. The consensus is that if you think there may be confusion, use a hyphen.)

More Examples of When to Use Compound Modifiers

  • There will be a five minute delay for the train to Barcelona.

Does five minute require a hyphen?

What kind of delay was it? Was it a five delay? How about a minute delay? It was neither. It was a five-minute delay.

  • But you might tell someone later that the train was delayed for five minutes.


As always, especially with the English language, there are exceptions to the rules. I’m only going to list the ones that typically come up on résumés. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the others, consult a good style guide or one of the many wonderful sites on the Internet.

  • Don’t hyphenate if you use the word very, or if you use an adverb ending in ” ly”.
  • Don’t hyphenate if one of the words is a single letter.
  • So you would write, highly motivated manager and very intense negotiations, with no hyphens.
  • And you would write, class A license with no hyphens.
  • But family-style restaurant and friendly-looking dog would require hyphens because even though they end with “ly”, they are adjectives not adverbs.

Another oddity. I said you don’t hyphenate adverbs, but you do hyphenate “well.” Well is an adverb, but it is also an adjective, so to avoid confusion, hyphenate it when used as a compound modifier.

  • He was a well-adjusted immigrant.
  • She conducted a well-prepared interview.when to use compound modifiers
friendly-looking dog

There is a list of rules regarding when to use hyphens on my site. I got the list from the Grammar site, which has a lot of good articles.

Definition of Compound Adjective

A compound adjective is an adjective that comprises more than one word. Usually, a hyphen (or hyphens) is used to link the words together to show that it is one adjective. A compound adjective is usually comprised of two words, but it can be more. An example would be a “made-to-order” meal or a “view-of-the” ocean room.

Compound modifiers may also be made from nouns.

Compound Modifiers from Proper Nouns

Compound modifiers are sometimes formed from proper nouns (names of people, places, or things) and should be used with capitals. Examples follow:

  • Chesapeake Bay bridge
  • Buddy Holly song
  • Martin Scorsese movie

Notice that when a compound modifier is a proper noun, no hyphen is used.

when to use hyphens

Chesapeake Bay bridge

Compound Adjectives with Quotation Marks and Italics

This is an antiquated way of doing things, but many people still use italics or quotation marks to indicated compound modifiers. A couple of examples follow:

  • She was sitting at the bar, then smiled and gave me a “come-and-get-it” look.
    • (From a noir detective novel)
  • The enemy of your enemy may be ipso facto a friend.
    • (foreign words are often italicized.)

There are many more rules that govern the use of when to use compound modifiers and when to use hyphens, but there isn’t enough space here to go through all of them. You can browse the site for information or check back from time to time and see if more has been added.

I did a post similar to this a few years ago. You can see that one here.

And you can view similar articles here.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes nonfiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammarpublishing., and children’s fiction and nonfiction.

When Giacomo isn’t writing, he’s helping his wife take care of the animals on their sanctuary. At last count, they had forty animals—seven dogs, one horse, six cats, and twenty-five pigs.

Oh, and one crazy—and very large—wild boar, who used to take walks with Giacomo every day.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with forty-five loving “friends.”

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About the Author

About the Author: When I’m not headhunting, or writing, I help my wife take care of our animal sanctuary. At last count we had 45 animals—11 dogs, 1 horse, 6 cats, and 26 pigs. Oh, and one crazy—and very large—wild boar named Dennis who takes walks with me every day and happens to also be my best buddy. For information on my mystery/suspense books, go to giacomog.com .

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