'Double-Barrelled' Adjectives

Nigel J. Ross teaches at the City of Milan School for Interpreters and Translators. Here he looks at a sticky area of language as he tries to unravel some of the mysteries of compound adjectives.

'Adjective compounds', 'compound adjectives', 'modifying compounds and expressions', 'multi-word modifiers' or whatever you want to call them abound in English; examples include: bitter-sweet chocolate, a kind-hearted aunt, a cross-Channel ferry, a hand-woven scarf, an over-simplified grammar explanation and a never-to-be-forgotten evening. In basic terms they are adjectival expressions made up of two (or sometimes more) words, usually linked by hyphens. Another example, double-barrelled, can perhaps serve as an apt and rather-less-punctilious name for a not-so-simple feature of the English language.

'Double-barrelled' adjectives are clearly a common feature of English, and yet they are a very alien feature to many foreign learners. Most course books seem to give little attention to them, except very much in passing. At best a well-meaning textbook may have a couple of 10-question exercises following on from the briefest of introductions. The main reason for this indifference probably lies with the fact that 'double-barrelled' adjectives have only relatively recently become widely used in written texts and more formal contexts. Previously they were more or less relegated to the realms of colloquial or everyday language, often by-passed by dictionaries and grammar books, and most definitely "not to be taught to foreigners". A comparison of a recent dictionary with a ten- or twenty-year-old edition soon proves how much more widespread such expressions have become. The balance therefore needs to be redressed in favour of these widely-used, practical and colourful compounds, not least in the language classroom. In fact, because of the general coolness towards them, students may be unsure of the meaning of some 'double-barrelled' adjectives, and they may well find them problematic to use due to confusion over how they are formed, where they can be effectively employed, when hyphens should be used, and so on.

Whenever usage problems of arise, it is good policy to see what the experts say. But as far as compound adjectives are concerned, course books, grammar and usage books usually provide only very limited help, at best giving a few examples and summary indications as to formation. Some academic investigations into English morphosyntax occasionally give some useful pointers, but of course they treat the subject from a very theoretical angle. The overall picture that emerged from the numerous sources I consulted was a sketchy view that was not particularly helpful in the teaching situation. The only answer seemed to be a go-it-alone, do-it-yourself approach.

Sampling the grammar

So, to try to get a fuller picture of the situation, I first listed nearly 400 common examples mainly gleaned from the books I had consulted (principally Quirk et al, 1972; Dunham & Summers 1986; Lass, 1987; Soars, 1989; Thomas, 1989; Sinclair et al, 1990), plus common instances I had come across here and there. I am fully aware that this is a very rudimentary sample, not put together with any proper scientific criteria. A scrupulous investigation would clearly have to be done on a much wider and more carefully-chosen sample of words, but my aim was not to delve into an area of morphological research but simply to pin-point certain aspects that might help language students get to grips with these compounds more easily.

Since all except a very small number (around 3%) of the examples in the sample were made up of two-word expressions, I concentrated on these. My first step was to look at the 'double-barrelled' combinations from a grammatical point of view. With only a few exceptions, all the component elements of such expressions belong to one of seven categories: present participles, past participles, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, numbers and noun+'ed'. Apart from these last two, all categories of elements are either found in the initial position or in the end position in the sample. The following table shows the various possible combinations with examples (a dash indicates that this combination is not found in the sample; three examples have been given for each combination, except when the sample only provided one or two):

Possible Combinations for Common 'Double-Barrelled' Adjectives

End pos. -->

Initial pos. V





Pres. Part.

Past Part.






























































Pres. Part.










Past Part.










Problems began to emerge straight away. Even the apparently simple task of dividing words up into grammatical categories proved to be fraught with difficulties. At times it is far from easy to say exactly what parts of speech are being put together. For example, is the 'up' in up-tight actually an adverb or a preposition? Are the second words in the compounds low-priced, high-powered and gilt-edged verbs or nouns+'ed' (ie. is a low-priced item an 'item priced at a low level' or an 'item sold at a low price'? And what about an expression such as sweet-singing? Since a sweet-singing canary sings sweetly, should the 'sweet' be classed as an adjective or an adverb-equivalent? Likewise a quick-frozen product has surely been frozen quickly. Some of the categories in the table above only produced one or two examples from the admittedly rough-and-ready, though reasonably large sample, while other groups were very large, in particular the adjective + noun+'ed' structure which numbered 62 examples (17% of the sample). Furthermore, there are quite a few unusual combinations that need a category all of their own and that are not even listed in the above table, for example: a sell-out concert, a drip-dry shirt, a high-rise block, hands-on experience, a wishy-washy candidate, and a go-getting executive.

If we concentrate on the main formations, a useful initial subdivision emerges between verb-based forms and those expressions without a verb (a subdivision along the lines of that used by Quirk et al, 1990). When verbs are used, they are nearly always found in the present or past participle form, ie. the -ing or -ed form. Moreover, the participle is usually the second element in the compound, though occasionally it may come first: a shocking-pink tie, a boiling-hot day, a cut-price bargain or worn-out tapes. The main verb-based structures in the sample are (in order of frequency): noun + present participle, noun + past participle, adverb + past participle, adjective + present participle and adjective + past participle.

The verb-less forms slightly outnumber the verb-based forms in the sample, the most common elements being nouns and adjectives. Numbers are frequent first elements, as in a two-way mirror, a five-star hotel, a second-class stamp and a three-legged table. This latter example points to another widespread feature, the adding of an 'ed' to a noun, making it reminiscent of a past participle. There are many adjective + noun+'ed' constructions, the majority of them relating to the body and the mind. Examples include: a grey-haired person, flat-footed policemen, foul-mouthed youths, an absent-minded professor, a quick-witted contestant and a broken-hearted lover. Not all such structures relate to the person, however; we find: a red-carpeted welcome, a twin-engined plane, and a double-barrelled name. A sizeable number of 'double-barrelled' expressions describe shades of colour: a bottle-green car, a jet-black night, a navy-blue jacket, a brick-red hat. The main verb-less structures are: adjective + noun+'ed' (the majority relating to the person), noun + adjective (including many based on colour adjectives), adjective + noun and number + noun.

So far we have ignored longer forms, ie. expressions with three words or more. The well-established ones which we can regard as common expressions make up only a tiny minority of such compound modifiers (just 3% of the sample), and they are generally based on common phrases. Hence we find expressions such as: a down-to-earth attitude, an up-to-date machine, a middle-of-the-road style. Very often these expressions have a conjunction or a preposition in the middle: a free-and-easy holiday, a door-to-door salesman. Occasionally mammoth forms may be found: a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't card trick; a here's-what-I'm-going-to-do-for-you political speech. However, unlike two-word expressions, many of these longer forms are simply one-off inventions, phrases pressed into service as temporary adjectives, an example being: "this is essentially just another Chinese-communist-spy-foiled-by-American-counter-intelligence plot" (a film review).

Grammar points for students

How much of the grammar should be presented to students? The answer is probably as little as possible. Since there are over 20 common formations plus a good number of other minor forms, and since at times it proves difficult to categorise examples with precision, students are unlikely to benefit from in-depth study of the way 'double-barrelled' adjectives are formed. However, there are one or two handy grammar points that may be helpful to students:

Some usage points

When it comes to looking at usage, various points arise that prove to be particularly relevant to the teaching situation. A number of words are repeatedly used at the start of double-barrelled expressions. 'Over', for example, is often found as an initial element followed by a past participle, as in an over-grown flower bed, an over-rated film, an over-booked flight, over-crowded prisons, an over-simplified explanation, and so on. In all cases, the 'over' implies exceeding a limit, and therefore such expressions can easily be understood once the basic meaning of the first element is appreciated. Other patterns include expressions beginning with 'well-' (a well-balanced diet, well-known personalities, well-paid jobs), 'off-' (an off-guard remark, off-peak hours, off-stage noises) or 'self-' (a self-addressed envelope, a self-centred person, self-employed workers, a self-taught genius).

Words that commonly occur at the end of 'double-barrelled' adjectives include many parts of the body+'ed', as well as '-free' and '-proof'. Parts of the body+'ed', such as '-haired' or '-hearted', are introduced by an adjective: a dark-haired boy, a fair-haired girl, a hard-hearted individual, a soft-hearted fool. On the other hand, a noun is usually the first part of expressions ending in '-free' or '-proof'; examples include duty-free purchases, tax-free investments, a trouble-free night, a bullet-proof vest, a rainproof jacket, fireproof material.

In many cases, compound adjectives collocate with specific nouns, and in some cases they may only usually collocate with one noun, eg. a sitting-duck target. Other very common collocations include: a long-standing relationship, a full-scale war, low-lying land, a far-reaching decision, an interest-bearing loan, a news-gathering organisation, a long-range weather forecast, a 500-word summary, a sawn-off shotgun, and so on. A number of 'double-barrelled' adjectives are close relations of phrasal verbs: call-up papers, a sell-out concert, an off-putting smell, an out-spoken critic, a see-through dress, a made-up story, a built-up area, a take-over bid. While the make-up of such compounds varies considerably, the meaning is always very close to the related phrasal verb. A last small group of euphonious 'unsplittable' compounds have slightly nonsensical, disparaging connotations, eg. higgledy-piggledy, fuddy-duddy, wishy-washy, topsy-turvy; they can add a colourful and amusing touch to discourse.

A quick look at areas of language where 'double-barrelled' adjectives are frequently used reveals that they tend to be more common in lower-register spoken and written varieties. Advertising and journalism often employ these direct, informal and dynamic compounds, not least because they also make very efficient use of available space (the phrase "a long-suffering office-worker" is much shorter than "someone who has been suffering by working in the office for a long time").


Whether or not to use the hyphen is one of the true bugbears connected with 'double-barrelled' adjectives. Once again the picture is confused and confusing. Dictionaries vary considerably, and many, such as the jam-packed new COBUILD dictionary (Sinclair, 1995), give alternative forms (bare-faced / barefaced or bestselling / best-selling) with few indications as to conventional usage.

From general observation it would appear that Americans probably use fewer hyphens, tending to join words together or keep them separate more often than the British: the COBUILD reminds us, for example, that high-class is spelled high class in American English. But whenever an expression becomes fairly common, the usual trend on both sides of the Atlantic is to join the words rather than use the hyphen. The new COBUILD dictionary only gives hyphen-less forms for overextended, outgoing, suntanned and heartbroken, (though other sources - such as Hawkins, 1986 - confusingly only give hyphenated forms, eg. sun-tanned and heart-broken). Surprisingly, though, the COBUILD does not give far-sighted without the hyphen. The key message seems to be that general hard-and-fast rules are difficult to find. Nevertheless, there are a few sure guidelines which may also be useful for students:

Teaching approaches

A number of teaching ideas have probably already come to mind for most readers. The worst possible approach would surely be to spend hours with students going through complex explanations about formation coupled with long lists of compound adjectives. Little-but-often is undoubtedly the best way to deal with this as well as with many other voluminous areas of language. And plenty of opportunities can probably be found to introduce a few 'double-barrelled' adjectives. When, for instance, an example such as self-taught appears in a text, it could be fruitful to spend a moment on vocabulary building, looking at a few other examples beginning with 'self-'. Likewise, components such as 'far-', 'well-' 'over-', 'full-', 'off-' '-free', '-like' '-proof' and '-conscious' can be developed quickly and easily. Dictionary work can also be encouraged for such compounds.

A course book unit entitled "Body and Mind" or something similar (many intermediate and advanced courses seem to have one) would provide an ideal springboard for taking a quick look at combinations with '-haired', '-hearted', '-minded', '-blooded', '-handed', '-mouthed', '-headed' and so on. And a lesson when colours crop up can be enlivened with a look at expressions such as ash-blonde, dove-grey, midnight-blue, snow-white, nut-brown, etc. A simple matching exercise can easily be devised here and in many other situations. At times it could be useful to look at little more closely at metaphorical expressions, as these evidently cause problems for students; watch out for examples such as: a high-flying executive, a two-faced colleague, a dog-eared page, a top-heavy organisation, a soft-hearted teacher, a thick-skinned opponent and a broad-shouldered friend.

Whenever the class is looking at newspaper stories, hyphenated adjectives are likely to be found, and they will abound on the cinema or TV-guide page. A fairly recent issue of The Times (4th Nov. 1995) included: adventure-packed trek, a tough-guy image, old-world chivalry, show-biz ambitions, a stand-up comedian, a ne'er-do-well husband, present-day erotic complications, and British-born star - all in just one short column! After reading a review of this kind, some stimulating work could develop from getting students to write a few lines, trying to incorporate some compound forms into a short synopsis of a film or a programme for a TV guide. More traditional warm-up exercises can be based around re-phrasing (eg. the star who has blue eyes = the blue-eyed star) or working with synonyms (eg. soul-destroying = agonising).

Even in a business-oriented course, these expressions ought not to be forgotten. Many are used in the working environment to neatly express fairly complex concepts; examples include mass-produced articles, a lump-sum payment, short-term benefits, seasonally-adjusted figures, a government-funded training scheme, an eight-hour working day, day-to-day management, an all-time high, tax-exempt securities, and so on.


'Double-barrelled' adjectives clearly represent a sizeable chunk of language - I've used around 30 of them, examples aside, in this short article - and deserve to be looked at more closely and more often by writers of course books, source books and grammar/usage books. In the meantime we can make up for such shortcomings by adopting a do-it-yourself approach whenever good examples come up and when other suitable opportunities arise. More than anything else, students probably need to familiarise themselves more with such expressions. Some well-dosed help and general information from teachers, a little-but-often approach and lots of in-context examples will probably prove to be the least confusing and the most successful approach.

Dunham, H. & Summers, C. (1986) English Integrated, Glenview, Illinois; Scott, Foresman & Co. (republished (1989) Bologna, Italy; Zanichelli).
Hawkins, Joyce (ed.) (1986) The Oxford Reference Dictionary, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Lass, Roger (1987) The Shape of English: Structure and History, J.M. Dent, London.
Pinker, Stephen (1994) The Language Instinct, Penguin, London.
Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1972) A Grammar of Contemporary English, London, Longman.
Sinclair, J. et al. (1990) Collins COBUILD English Grammar, London & Glasgow, Collins.
Sinclair, J. et al. (1995) Collins COBUILD English Dictionary, London, HarperCollins.
Soars, John & Liz. (1989) Headway Advanced (Student's Book & Workbook), Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Thomas, B.J. (1989) Advanced Vocabulary and Idiom, London, Edward Arnold.

   Published in Modern English Teacher (Vol. 6/3, October 1997), Modern English Publications, Basingstoke, UK.




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