Published by marco on

This is another public-service announcement.[1]

I’m a bit of a fanatic about hyphens. Hyphens aren’t really that difficult in English.

With Adverbs

I was recently asked whether an adjective following an adverb needs to be hyphenated. For example, does “This is a fully qualified sentence.” need a hyphen?

It does not. But almost everything else does.

According to the article Adverbs and Hyphens by Maeve Maddox (Daily Writing Tips), the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style agree:

“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.

Compound Adjectives

Furthermore, I tend to agree with the AP Style, which writes that “[c]ompound adjectives beginning with “well” are hyphenated no matter where they are in the sentence.” The Chicago Manual of Style thinks that “[w]hen such compounds follow the noun they modify, hyphenation is usually unnecessary, even for adjectival compounds that are hyphenated in Webster’s”, which I consider to be blasphemy. If it’s defined in the dictionary, it seems quite arrogant for a style guide to leave hyphenation up to the author and/or editor. They helpfully note that it’s “usually unnecessary”, meaning that the reader will often be able to figure out what’s going on from context, so go ahead and put the burden on the reader. Oxford (American version) muddies the waters even more by opining that the hyphen is required when the adjective comes before the noun but not when it comes after. Madness.

Compound, compound adjectives

Additionally, if you have multiple hyphens, you can emphasize the secondary one (or ones) by using an n-dash rather than a hyphen.

For example, the phrase “a red-jewel–encrusted dagger” needs two hyphens. The n-dash is between “jewel” and “encrusted”.

If you don’t use hyphens at all, you leave the reader swimming in a sea of confusion. They will probably have to take multiple runs at your sentence in order to make sense of it.

  • A red-jewel–encrusted dagger (definitely a dagger encrusted with red jewels)
  • A red-jewel encrusted dagger (probably a dagger encrusted with red jewels)
  • A red, jewel-encrusted dagger (a red dagger encrusted with jewels)
  • A red jewel encrusted dagger (an unreadable pileup of words)

Non-hyphenated words[2]

Where things get a bit murkier is when you have two words that form a single word, but have done so for a long time. Eventually, the words agglutinate without a hyphen. For example, the world “hellbent” is written without a hyphen, but it’s unclear why. There are also a lot of words starting with the syllable “re” (redistribution, recycling, etc.) that don’t take a hyphen. When in doubt, look it up in a dictionary. I do it all the time. We have the knowledge of the world at our fingertips[3] and our spelling and grammar is getting worse and worse.


Two more things:

  • The past tense of “lead” is spelled “led”, not “lead”.
  • It’s either “whence” or “from where”, It’s never “from whence”, which is redundant.

[1] Do you see what I did there? It’s called foreshadowing.[4]
[2] There’s another one. Other words, like “finger-dry” are hyphenated.
[3] More foreshadowing, which is also foreshadowing.
[4] That’s actually foreshadowing for the final section.