Commas and Hyphens in Adjectives, Oh My!

Multiple adjectives modifying a single noun need commas, right? But in a writing group I’m in, we spent some time debating why this sentence is incorrect:

“He sat at a hand carved, oak dining table.”

We could all tell by instinct that it is incorrect, but had trouble expressing why.

The correct punctuation would be:

“He sat at a hand-carved oak dining table.”

Understanding when noun modifiers need punctuation is a hair-tearing exercise in frustration for many writers. We rely on instinct and experience to recognize when to place commas and hyphens in noun/adjective combinations, but any editor will tell you our instincts are often wrong.

Turns out, there are actual (not-so) secret rules to this.

It starts with something called “compound nouns.”

Compound nouns are like Lego builds. They’re single items comprised of multiple components, but those components don’t really modify the noun; they are an essential part of it. Some examples include “Christmas tree,” “golf ball,” and “ice cream.” Even though they’re multiple words, they serve as a single, modifiable idea.

In our example sentence, “oak dining table” is a single compound noun. The only modifier is “hand-carved,” so as a single adjective, it does not require a comma.

So why is “hand-carved” hyphenated?

Sometimes we use groups of words to express a single thought that modifies a noun. That becomes a “compound adjective.” We hyphenate these when they appear before the noun they modify. In this example, we want “hand-carved” to represent a single thought, because “hand” and “carved” don’t modify the table individually (what’s a hand table?). They are a single modifier.

Another reason to hyphenate an adjective is when the meaning of a phrase is unclear without the hyphen. It serves the same purpose as above, to group words together as a single thought and make the meaning clear. For example, if I say that most of the children in a class live in two parent households, we have some ambiguity. Are these two separate parental households, or one household with two parents in it? In this case, using “two-parent households” clarifies the meaning. We’ve grouped “two” and “parents” into a single thought, modifying “households.” These situations are judgment calls, though, and your editor might disagree with your usage.

Now it gets tricky

Some compound nouns are written as one word, like “waistline” and “haircut.” Some are always hyphenated, like “mother-in-law.”

Also, the rules can differ by region, specialty, and publication. I’ve seen “dining table” hyphenated in several places, even though the majority of dictionaries do not do so.

The good news is that many publications HAVE a style guide that specifies things like hyphenation and treatment of common phrases. There are also wider-use style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or APA Stylebook, which can be good general guides to follow in the U.S. when no other guidance is available. But they’re not universal. Regardless of what you’re used to or you’ve been taught, always defer to the stated preferences of the publisher when dealing with punctuation.