Q: If there are two words before a noun that act like an adjective to describe it, do you hyphenate those two words?
Standard Answer: That depends. Specifically, that depends on the parts of speech involved.
If the two words are an adverb followed by an adjective, do not hyphenate.
A much needed vacation
A very challenging problem
A sometimes difficult task
The nearly completed project
The ever increasing regulation
The once popular diner
The already full separator
The now defunct agency
The purpose of the hyphen is to indicate that the two words should be understood as a single concept even though they are different parts of speech.
Some expressions of two words are already recognized as a single concept, in which case no hyphen is needed.
High school teacher
Income tax return
Monday morning meeting
Social Security benefits
Compound adjectives formed by a noun and a verb participle are hyphenated. Examples:
Also hyphenated are compound adjectives formed by an adjective preceding a noun. Examples:
Comparatives and superlatives in compound adjectives also take hyphens.
The highest-bidding contractor
A shorter-term contract
If in doubt, look it up in the dictionary, or ask your friendly neighborhood Grammar Geek. I love to get fan mail from the Peanut Gallery.
Fun Fact of the Day:
The earth’s North Pole is actually a magnetic south pole, where the magnetic field points straight down. Conversely, the earth’s South Pole is actually a magnetic north pole, where the magnetic field points straight up. The north pole of a magnet should actually be called the north-seeking pole. (Note the hyphen.)
Another Fun Fact:
If you draw a straight line between the earth’s North Magnetic Pole and South Magnetic Pole, the line does not pass through the center of the earth, but misses it by 330 miles (530 km).