3 Questions About Hyphenation with Adverbs

By Mark Nichol

Writers are often confused about whether a phrase beginning with an adverb should be hyphenated. The answers to the following three questions explain when hyphenation is required and when it is incorrect.

1. I read an article that included this sentence: “Smith did his best during a nationally-broadcast speech this month to scare voters away from Jones.” Is that hyphen correct?

Adverbs ending in -ly are generally not hyphenated, because the suffix signals that the adverb modifies the word that follows it, not the noun that follows both words, so a hyphen is redundant. Many people, including your friend, confuse such adverbial phrases with adjectival phrases (or phrasal adjectives, as they’re more commonly called), which do usually take hyphens.

2. True or false: If an adverb is a part of the phrasal adjective, it does not need a hyphen to connect it. For example, “She was a highly motivated student.” Assuming that is true, how would you approach the phrasal adjective in this sentence: “We’re having nowhere else conversations in this confidential community.” Else is an adverb, but to modify conversations, does “nowhere else” need a hyphen?

True and false: In discussions of adverbial phrases that modify a noun, the distinction described in the answer to the previous question and repeated here is sometimes ignored: Adverbs ending in -ly are never hyphenated in such phrases, because the suffix signals that the adverb modifies the next word, not the noun, so a hyphen is redundant. Adverbs with no such suffix, however, should be hyphenated, as in “nowhere-else conversations.” (However, I do not recommend that particular construction.)

3. A coworker who edited a report I wrote insists that the hyphen in the following sentence is required: “Condemnation of her offensive response was near-universal.” Is she right?

Your colleague is under the near-universal misapprehension that when the adverb near precedes an adjective, the two words are always linked by a hyphen. However, this is true only when the words combine to modify a noun that follows, as in the phrase “near-universal condemnation.” (This is a case of hyphenation with an adverb that does not end with -ly, as discussed in the answer to the previous question.) This distinction is the same as for phrasal adjectives consisting of an adjective and a noun converted to an adjective, as in the difference between “the highest-grossing film” and “the film that is highest grossing.”

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3 Responses to “3 Questions About Hyphenation with Adverbs”

  • Dale A. Wood

    About “near-universal”. “Near” is not an adverb, or if people have been using it as an adverb, that usage should be deprecated! (Also depreciated all the way down to zero) We have the adverb “nearly” and the phrases “nearly universal”, “nearly extinct”, “nearly climatic”, etc.
    As in the film THE PRINCESS BRIDE, the wizard played by Billy Crystal said, “There’s a lot of difference between dead and ‘nearly dead’!” Grammatically, there is a lot of difference between “near-death experience” and “nearly dying”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In doing some work in trying to improve an online translating dictionary, I would that a word in English that can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb are quite rare**. One of them is “fast” – because there is no such word as “fastly”.
    A. The holy man went on a fast to atone for his “sins”.
    B. For the next two months, he will fast from sundown to dawn.”
    C. He thought that his worst sin was liking fast cars.
    D. Let’s vamoose out of here really fast!
    “Vamoose” is a rather-strange loanword from Spanish into English because in Spanish it is spelled “vamose”.
    In English, it is sometimes possible for a word that ends in “ly” to be used either as an adverb or an adjective. One example is from the above: “He nearly ran out of luck, and he was nearly dead because of it.” This is probably one of those things in English that tries the souls of people who have been trying to learn English as a second or third language.”

    **Some computer programmers had set the program up this way: one, two, or three parts of speech were allowed. For this and many other reasons, it was not a very good dictionary.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I know that I was never taught anything about hyphenating adverbs onto attributive adjectives in school. Many other people had the same experience, probably, and that it why they do not hyphenate any of these: well-bred, well-built, well-known, much-needed, much-abused, hard-driven, hard-gotten, hard-worked,…
    The antonym of “well” is “poorly”, and the antonym of “hard” is “softly” because “hardly” is a different word with a different meaning from “hard”. There is a lot of difference between “a hard-gotten gain” and “hardly gotten home before…”.
    “The explorer went from a land of hard-driven rain to one of softly-driven snow just by traveling from Amazonia of Brazil up into the Andes of Bolivia.”
    As for the adverb “much”, the word “muchly” is an antiquated one. My spellchecker does not like it, but I have seen it in Elizabethan literature.

    I think that I have seen some other antiquated words that ended in “ly”, but that has been pruned off or replaced now: morely, lessly, and so forth.

    Then, to confuse learners, we have a significant set of plain-old adjectives that end in “ly” { beastly, burly, curly, gangly, ghastly, ghostly, giggly, girly, gnarly, oily, pearly, ugly, wiggly }, and so forth.
    “Genevieve spied a gangly, ghostly image with a gnarly grin,” so I told her “Let’s get gone for good! Let’s vamoose!”

    The opposite of a well-built house is a poorly built house.
    D.A.W.

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