When is it appropriate to use a hyphen when naming colors?

For instance Blue-green has a dash but Teal blue does not.

Is there some general English rule that applies?

  • In general compound words are very flexible in how they're spelt, whether that's with a space, a hyphen or nothing at all. I wouldn't worry about it! – curiousdannii Mar 18 '14 at 9:09
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Generally one uses a hyphen for compound adjectives where they precede the noun or noun clause which they describe.

For example, I would write 'A blue-green sea provided the background curtain to the open-air theatre'.

But I might equally say 'My favourite colour is blue green', and 'I love being in the open air'.

  • I'm not convinced. Your second example seems to use "open" to modify "air." If you really want to treat "open air" as a noun, then I'd prefer to see it hyphenated. – Carl Witthoft Mar 18 '14 at 14:18
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    @CarlWitthoft Of course I am using 'open' to modify 'air'. In the second example 'air' is a noun. Would you have it that every time you use an adjective to qualify a noun that you hyphenate them? 'The suspect is a tall-man, with large-feet, a grey-beard, and blue-eyes'! – WS2 Mar 18 '14 at 17:19
  • Yes, but in your second example, I still think "blue-green" is preferable because it's a single color, not a modified color. – Carl Witthoft Mar 19 '14 at 14:12
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    @CarlWitthoft My old granny used to say 'Blue and green should never be seen, Unless there's something in-between'. So perhaps your idea of a hyphen is right. Personally I find it easier to say 'turquoise'. – WS2 Mar 19 '14 at 18:16

In blue-green there two distinct colors, so it's really a combination of blue and green, i.e., a bluish green. It's a compound adjective as in blue-green algae; can also be used as a noun for that shade of color. --> use hyphen.

In teal blue 'teal' is a particular shade of "moderate or dark bluish green to greenish blue", so it merely provides additional information on what kind of (shade of) blue, in the expression teal blue. Teal is the adjective and blue is the noun. --> no hyphen.

  • But what if it's a "teal-blue teacup" ? :-) . So you see it does depend on the full construction. (Yes I know I went off-topic, since my example is not naming a color but rather naming the color of an object) – Carl Witthoft Mar 18 '14 at 12:57
  • @Carl It still works: 'teal blue teacup' not 'teal-blue teacup', like 'light blue', not 'light-blue'. – Kris Mar 19 '14 at 6:56
  • You certain? "teal" modifies "blue," not "teacup." – Carl Witthoft Mar 19 '14 at 11:17
  • @Carl: I think in that example, the color is still "teal blue," but since it's an adjective phrase preceding a noun, it becomes hyphenated. – pandubear Mar 31 '14 at 9:07

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