Hyphenated Two-Word Phrases

I received a question the other day in email about when to use a hyphen between two words, and why sometimes a hyphen is used with the same two-word phrase while other times it is not. That’s what today’s post will be about: when you hyphenate two words and when not to hyphenate.

Generally speaking, you’re going to hyphenate two words that come together before a noun and act together as ‘one’ adjective to describe the noun. When the same two words are not being used as a joint adjective to describe a noun, they are not hyphenated.


Freelancing is a full-time job for me. I work full time as a freelancer.

See, in the first sentence, ‘full-time’ is acting as one adjective to describe the noun ‘job’. In the next sentence it is not describing a noun directly, so it is not hyphenated.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every time you use more than one adjective to describe a noun in front of the noun that they should be hyphenated.


Please bring me the soft, red quilt.

You wouldn’t write this ‘soft-red quilt’, because soft and red are two different adjectives that are both accurate – the quilt is soft, the quilt is red. With ‘full-time job’, though, the job is not full and time, but rather ‘full-time’.

More examples:

I am self employed. This means I am a self-employed contractor.

The book was well worn. The well-worn book was for sale.

This is a time-tested theory.

Again, the check on this is two-fold: 1) do the two words come before a noun and act as an adjective to describe the noun and 2) if they do come before the noun and act as an adjective, could each word be used separately to describe the noun? If the answer to the first one is yes and the second one is no, you need a hyphen.

The book cannot be ‘well book’, but it can be a ‘well-worn book’. The theory cannot be ‘time theory’, but it can be a ‘time-tested’ theory.

And there you have why sometimes a hyphen is used for some two-word combinations but not for others.

Any questions?

Love and stuff,