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Generally, as a rule, I always hyphenate words to make them into a single adjective, so I've been putting "blood-red", "forest-green", "royal-blue" and the like, but the moment I typed "royal-blue", my instincts kicked in.

It didn't look right to me. Perhaps it's because this is an official colour or the fact that the word "royal" is unrelated to blue, but I'm not sure.

What do you guys think?

P.S. I'm using British English, if that helps.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

You would not use hyphens when the phrase is used as a noun:

Blood red had always been his favorite color.
The flag had white lion on a field of forest green.
The dress was a fine royal blue.

Generally, I'd recommend that you use hyphens when the phrase is used as an adjective (i.e. a compound modifier):

He drank the sweet, blood-red wine.
The flag, forest-green and proud, was raised at noon.
The royal-blue dress fitted her well.

However, if the color phrase is part of a larger adjectival phrase where the color phrase itself is being modified, leave the hyphens off:

Her extravagantly royal blue dress was a sight to behold.

There may be still be some disagreement on this, though, and there are no absolute rules that apply to all possible word combinations. You are free to use whatever form you feel is most natural and easy to understand.

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1  
The rule you state doesn't seem to work in the inverse cases: would "the wine was a lovely blood red" be correct (I say "yes"), or "she wore a fine royal-blue dress" (I think not.) The rule, in other words, is a little more complex. –  MT_Head Aug 9 '13 at 0:44
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@MT_Head Yes, I believe "she wore a fine, royal-blue dress" is correct (the dress is both fine and royal-blue). "she wore a fine royal blue dress" just seems weird to me. But I suppose "she wore a deep royal blue dress", is correct (the royal blue color is deep). I'll update my answer to try to clarify it a little more. –  p.s.w.g Aug 9 '13 at 1:01
    
Thanks. This is what I had expected to the the answer. Well, it's the way I'm going to do things, at least. I have noticed that I've been automatically hyphenating a lot of things lately... –  Jordan Elliot Finch Aug 9 '13 at 1:05
    
@p.s.w.g - If you run an Ngram for "royal blue" vs. "royal-blue", "royal-blue" barely shows up at all until the 1980s or so; it's still relatively rare. If you run "royal blue dress" vs. "royal-blue dress", it's a bit more even - but "royal blue dress" is still much more common. I'll grant you that "royal-blue dress" isn't incorrect per se, but it's definitely the minority opinion. –  MT_Head Aug 9 '13 at 1:11
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The bottom line - and all I wanted to say, really - is that you can't make any hard-and-fast (see what I did there?) rule about this. It all comes down to how you, as a writer, feel about certain combinations; for instance, I have no problem with "lime-green panties" (from Catch-22), but "Kelly-green shorts" would be jarring to me. –  MT_Head Aug 9 '13 at 1:26

Dashes (not hyphens) connect words when their separation would be ambiguous:

Green table eating parrot.

We know that tables do not eat parrots, but this would be clearer

Green table-eating parrot.

Or even

Green-table-eating parrot. (although I would go for a re-write at this point)

In short, anytime the association between words is ambiguous, use dashes.

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No, hyphens connect words, not dashes (and I note you have used hyphens and not dashes in your examples). See Fowler (ed Burchfield 1998) p370. –  Andrew Leach Aug 9 '13 at 7:16

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