Adverbs and Hyphens

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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.”

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11 thoughts on “Adverbs and Hyphens”

  1. I’m curious about the -ly rule: why is there no hyphen for only those adverbs? A better rule, it seems, would be Don’t include a hyphen for any adverb that cannot be construed as an adjective. All the examples you give could be misleading. The man is well. The woman is quick. The children are soft. The play is second. Are -ly adverbs and “very” the only adverbs that are clearly not adjectives?

  2. The *full* entry for this topic in Chicago 7.81 says:

    When compound modifiers (also called phrasal adjectives) such as open-mouthed or full-length precede a noun, hyphenation usually lends clarity. With the exception of proper nouns (such as United States) and compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective (see 7.82), it is never incorrect to hyphenate adjectival compounds before a noun. 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 some reason, you seem to have selectively quoted this section as “disagreement.” As far as I can see, there is no disagreement whatsoever.

  3. @Saphira It wasn’t a selective quote; you included parts irrelevant to the disagreement, which was when they “follow the noun”.

  4. I have to make a confession. Well, I guess I don’t have to but, anyway. I’ve never thought of hyphenation as something forma that has any real “rules” per se. I’ve never thought of it as really being governed like spelling or grammar or punctuation. It makes sense that it is, I guess, so I’m not taking issue with the rules presented, but just I always thought of it— if at all— as something like italics, or a parenthetical comment: stick it in there if it makes something clearer.

    I don’t think I’ve ever used one with a termal –ly adverb because that would simply “seem” wrong; like a local radio ad that touts “salaried based” agents rather than “salaried” or “salary based”. Drives me to yell at my radio every time it comes on. As for writing salary based vs salary-based I could’ve written either way, till now, without giving it a thought. I’ll strive to mend my wrong-ways.

  5. It is a sign of declining education that ambiguity is possible in the sequence of “adverb adjective noun.” The presence of the hyphen only confirms that decline. Respect your readers. Leave the hyphens out.

  6. I suffer daily through the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has either thrown out the stylebook or laid off the copyeditors. Terrible things happen with who and whom, their and they’re, and myriad soundalikes; single-syllable words get hyphenated at the end of lines; and -ly adverbs always get hyphenated. Thanks for confirming the validity of my preferred usages!

  7. “Only” is *not* an adjective in “only-begotten son.” In this case, “only” has its original meaning: “one-ly.” Thus, “only-begotten” means “singly begotten.” The reason the word is hyphenated is because it is a direct translation of the single Greek word “monogenes.”

  8. Anon,
    I believe that “only” in “only begotten” is an adjective meaning “sole,” as in “sole heir.” However, according to The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th edition, the hyphen is not necessary:
    “only begotten Son”—Some punctilious editors insert a hyphen between “only” and “begotten” in the phrase “only begotten Son,” arguing that it is a compound adjective. This overlooks the fact that most Bible translations that use the phrase (John 3:16) do not hyphenate it, the KJV and the NASB being the most common. Only the outdated Webster an Darby versions hyphenate it.

  9. Oh, that ‘only’ rears its head even in this setting.
    About Latin I know not; but this I do know: ‘only’ is the loneliest word in the English language, abused, misused and ignored so often.

    It is the one word that changes the meaning of a sentence by its placement in the sentence; and a whole generation or three who have not been taught grammar ignore that. Thus we get sentences such as : He only passed the course.

    Notice the shading that happens:
    Only he passed the course.
    He only passed the course.
    He passed only the course.
    He passed the only course.
    He passed the course only.

    Okay, some are a stretch; but the default has become placing it before the verb, very often with inflection that is not the intent.

    Misuse leads to leaving the meaning the reader (or listener) and as we all know that can lead to misunderstanding.

  10. It’s *possible* for “only” to be ambiguous, because the same word is both an adjective and an adverb.

    1) Adjective: I have an only [son].
    2) Adverb: I have only [had] one son.

    Deciding on whether it should be hyphenated, depends on how it’s being used. In theory, the following is ambiguous:

    1) Adjective: I have an only [begotten son].
    In short,: I have only one son who is begotten. In theory, even this is ambiguous. As a compound noun, it means it’s possible that I have one son who is begotten, but several other sons who are not begotten …

    In terms of thinking of it as an adjective, it might even be the case that it could be hyphenated this way:

    Disambiguation: I have an only begotten-son.

    Here, the hyphenation makes it obvious that the noun that’s being modified is “begotten son.”

    2) Adverb: I have an [only begotten] son.
    In short: I have a son who is the only one I beget. (I fathered no other sons.)

    In practical use, it’s highly doubtful anybody would misunderstand “an only begotten son,” whether or not there is a hyphen anywhere. (It’s meaning is almost always adverbial.) Since there is no real chance of confusion, there is no need for the hyphen.

    But here it is in a different construction:

    Compound adjective: It is an only-child situation.

    Here, in this adjectival use, it should be hyphenated. Although it’s meaning would likely be inferred without the hyphen, there is no hesitation in parsing the grammar when the hyphen is included.

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