A reader pleads,
Please, please, please discuss the use of hyphenation (and lack thereof) of adverbs with adjectives. I keep seeing the likes of “newly-minted doctor” or “visually-impaired cat” regularly these days and it makes me crazy! Is it something that’s becoming more acceptable? Or is it the general lack of editors and grammatical knowledge?
Punctuation rules are hard to grasp. However, the rule about hyphens and -ly adverbs is easy enough to master:
When a compound modifier–two or more words that express a single concept–precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly. —AP Stylebook, 2013 edition. Boldface added.
Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible. (The ly ending with adverbs signals to the reader that the next word will be another modifier, not a noun.) —Chicago Manual of Style, 7.82.
Not all adverbs end in -ly.
The adverb very has already received special mention in the rule from the AP Stylebook: Very is never followed by a hyphen.
But what about the adverb well?
According to AP, we must hyphenate well when it is part of a compound modifier: well-dressed, well-informed, well-known. AP also advises that a compound that’s hyphenated before a noun is also hyphenated following a form of the verb to be: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken. The play is second-rate.
The University of Iowa writing site concurs:
Compound adjectives beginning with “well” are hyphenated no matter where they are in the sentence.
When a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun comes after a form of the verb “to be,” you usually keep the hyphen to avoid confusion.
The editors of the Chicago Manual of Style seem to disagree:
When such compounds follow the noun they modify, hyphenation is usually unnecessary, even for adjectival compounds that are hyphenated in Webster’s (such as well-read or ill-humored).
For good measure, I looked in at the American section of OxfordDictionaries.com where I found this directive:
With compound adjectives formed from the adverb well and a participle (e.g., well-known), or from a phrase (e.g., up-to-date), you should use a hyphen (or hyphens) when the compound comes before the noun:
well-known brands of coffee;
an up-to-date account,
but not when the compound comes after the noun:
His music was also well known in England.
Their figures are up to date.
Straightforward instructions, these, but when I looked up “well known” in the U.S. part of OxfordDictionaries, I found this among the examples of usage:
The result is well-known, and we need only linger to consider the crucial lesson from this.
When the experts contradict themselves and each other, what’s an ordinary mortal to do?
Hyphenation is not an exact science. The one rule you can memorize with confidence is that a hyphen is not needed when an -ly adverb begins a phrasal modifier*. For everything else, choose a style guide or dictionary to follow.
*Warning: Not every word that ends in -ly is an adverb. Watch out for nouns like family and supply, and adjectives like only. For example, “family-oriented websites”; supply-side economics”; “only-begotten son.”