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When I write "I heard his deep warm voice filling the room." it's clear that both deep and warm are attributives for voice. When I write "The 32-bit Pentium had a 64-bit data bus." I use the hyphen between 32 and bit, to make evident that 32 is an attributive of bit, not Pentium. When I write "The well-known actress accepted her award." I use the hyphen to avoid confusion with well known actress.

Should I always use a hyphen to make clear what an attributive describes? For example, should I write "She was wearing a deep-crimson shirt." to make the sentence clearer?

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Your examples aren't exactly the same. In your first example, you're actually missing a comma:

I heard his deep, warm voice filling the room.

You need the comma here because both deep and warm describe voice. What kind of voice is it? A voice that is deep and warm.

She was wearing a deep crimson shirt.

No comma here, and also no hyphen; deep describes crimson, and crimson describes shirt. What kind of shirt is it? A crimson shirt. What kind of crimson is it? A deep crimson.

I think '32-bit' being hyphenated is just because it's become a convention to write it that way. If you wrote 32 out as a word, you wouldn't hyphenate:

The thirty-two bit Pentium had a sixty-four bit data bus.


ETA: Upon further research, it seems that in the first example, you can either use the comma or not use the comma; either would be correct. (Source)

I found this example online that illustrates when to use the hyphens. Basically they are used to avoid syntactic ambiguity; when not using the hyphen makes the sentence mean something else, you use the hypen.

  • Jacob took the well-fatted calf to the riverside. ('well-fatted calf' as in a very plump calf)

  • Jacob took the well fatted calf to the riverside. ('well fatted calf' could be construed as a 'well' (i.e., healthy) and 'fatted' calf. In the first example, the 'well-fatted calf' could be ill.)

This is similar to your added example about the well-known actress:

If you do not use a hyphen, you have:

The well known actress accepted her award.

In this case both well and known apply to the actress. This means she is well (not ill) and known. But that's not what you want to say; you want to describe to what degree she is known, and you don't mean to say anything about the state of her health. So you use the hyphen to make well-known into a compound adjective everyone will understand:

The well-known actress accepted her award.

In your deep crimson shirt example you don't have any ambiguity. A shirt cannot be deep, so no one is going to be confused if you don't use the hyphen. We understand inherently that deep applies to crimson and crimson to shirt. So it seems we use the hyphen to make compound adjectives when otherwise the sentence's meaning would change.

  • "I heard his deep warm voice filling the room." is an actual example given from the OALD. – kiamlaluno Apr 17 '13 at 16:13
  • @kiamlaluno You're right; I've updated my answer with further examples and research. – WendiKidd Apr 17 '13 at 16:42
  • It's not very natural to say "the well, known actress" meaning she's both well and known to be an actress. A more serious disambiguation by punctuation is between "the long, expected speech" and "the long-expected speech" ;-) Although in that example you'd still more naturally say either "the expected long speech" (because a long speech was expected) or "the expected speech, which was long" (to separate the length from the expectation). – Steve Jessop Apr 3 '14 at 11:05
  • Sometimes adjectives describing color are used to describe an object's appearance, and sometimes they describe a color selection made when the product was was manufactured, ordered, etc. A hyphenated color name would suggest the latter to me. "All employees wear deep-crimson shirts made by Acme, though some employees' shirts are so badly faded as to appear almost beige". A shirt which is almost beige isn't deep crimson, but could still be called a "deep-crimson shirt" if the manufacturer designated it as such. – supercat Nov 3 '16 at 18:12
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I think that one of the rules is that you hyphenate noun phrases when they become adjectives. For example, you have stainless steel, but a stainless-steel kitchen. Similarly you can have an oak panel, and an oak-panel dresser. Using this rule a processor with 32 bits is a 32-bit processor.

For the same reason, I would hyphenate "deep-crimson shirt", but wouldn't hyphenate "green cotton shirt" because "green" and "cotton" are different adjectives of "shirt", and not a single noun-phrase adjective of it

  • But "deep crimson" is not a noun phrase; "crimson" when referring to a color (not the dye or pigment that creates the color) is an adjective to begin with. – Hellion Apr 30 '13 at 15:08

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