I'm having some confusion here as I've been tasked with checking that some texts fit a style guide for work, and it requires that two adjectives directly preceding a noun be hyphenated, e.g. 'well-dressed woman'. That example is straightforward enough for me, but I have no clue how far it extends.

I'm seeing a lot of cases of 'smart home experience', 'smart home offering' and 'home security provider'. 'Variable commission basis' is another one that's stumping me. Should these be hyphenated? The Oxford dictionary only lists smart home as a noun, but if it's describing the noun after it, would it not count as an adjective? Or are these words a complement in these instances?

I'm terrible at breaking down sentences, and as much as I've tried, I can't seem to get used to this. Any advice would be much appreciated.

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Janus Bahs Jacquet, JJJ, Chappo, Davo Jun 6 at 12:16

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    Well-dressed woman is not a case of two adjectives directly preceding a noun. It’s a case of a noun directly modified by a preceding adjective (dressed) modified by an adverb (well). It is customary to hyphenate certain attributive adverb-adjective entities, though not other (a strangely comforting sound would not normally be hyphenated, for instance). Two adjacent adjectives (a tall black woman) would normally never be hyphenated, so I’m a bit unsure as to what your question really is – what does your style guide really say? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 22 at 17:37
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Many thanks for your reply. This is what the style guide says: 'Hyphenate two connecting adjectives that directly precede a noun but do not go beyond two hyphens.' The examples it lists for hyphenation are 'well-dressed woman', 'low-cost carriers' and 'long-term plan'. Those make sense to me, but the more uncommon instances that crop up, like in my question, seem very odd with a hyphen and so I'm trying to make sure I'm not misunderstanding what to hyphenate, I suppose. Thank you. – user349281 May 23 at 10:09
  • That style guide was clearly written by someone who hasn’t got the faintest idea about how English works. Not a single one of those examples include two connecting adjectives. Well-dressed is adverb + adjective, while low-cost and long-term is adjective + noun. What they probably mean is that if an attributive noun (also called a noun adjunct, i.e., a noun that functions sort of like an adjective in modifying another noun) is modified by an adjective, that adjective + noun combination should be hyphenated. This is standard. But their actual wording is nonsense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 23 at 10:42
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thank you so much for breaking it down like that, it's very helpful. I can see why I was confused now! – user349281 May 24 at 5:35

As your question suggests, the rules for hyphenation are largely a matter of style rather than correctness. It is common to hyphenate a compound adjective derived from a compound noun, in particular if there may be some confusion when the hyphen is omitted.

None of the examples you have given seem especially prone to misunderstanding, but an argument could be made to hyphenate any of them. For example, is a "smart home experience" referring to the experience of a smart home, or a home experience that is itself "smart"? Saying a "smart-home experience" would eliminate that confusion.

Since you are doing this for work with a style guide that dictates a hyphen in a compound adjective, that's what I would recommend you do.

Leaving out the hyphen is becoming increasingly common in cases where the intended meaning is assumed to be understood by the reader, as seen in the Ngram of "fast-food restaurant" versus "fast food restaurant." Note that despite a relative decrease in usage, the former (with the hyphen) is still more common.

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