Q&A: "When should I use a hyphen in my adverbs and adjectives?"

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This week, we examine when it’s okay to hyphenate adverbs and adjectives and when it’s not… 

Q: Hey there, I wrote something but I have a friend who thinks it’s wrong.
A: Oh, you have a “friend” who thinks it’s wrong, do you? <wink>

Q: What are you doing?
A: Nothing. We can help with your “friend’s” issue. <nudge>

Q: Um, this isn’t an embarrassing rash. It’s a grammar question. Why would I pretend that it’s not me?
A: Good point. Sorry about that. So, you and your friend are disagreeing about something you’ve written.

Q: Yep. I wrote, “this is a well written book” and she thinks it should be “well-written” with a hyphen. Is there some kind of code of conduct here?
A: Actually there is. We’re dealing with adverbs – which are usually words that modify verbs, but here they also modify adjectives and often that results in a compound adjective.

Q: A compound adjective?
A: A compound adjective. It’s like a supersized hyphenated adjective that uses more than one word to describe something. So you may have an up-to-the-minute report, a fast-moving car or a soft-boiled egg. The hyphen acts like glue to tell the reader that we are just dealing with one description.

Q: So my friend was right? You’re saying it IS a well-written article?
A: Well, we haven’t read the article, so couldn’t possibly comment. But yes, your sentence should include the hyphen. If you didn’t, you are treating it like two adjectives and opening the door to misinterpretation.

Q: Maybe slightly ajar. I’m pretty sure people would not have misinterpreted that. Hmmph.
A: Off you go to the sulky corner then. A hyphen helps remove any doubt. Consider “a fast-talking Jamaican” versus “a fast talking Jamaican”. The first sells used cars, while the second is a chatty Usain Bolt.

Q: Okay, fine. So does this hyphen rule apply to all adverbs?
A: Bwhahahahaaa. Have you not learnt anything about English yet? Of course it doesn’t! That would be far too easy. Notable exceptions include any adverbs ending in “y” – softly, quietly, largely etc. And also the word “very”.

Q: That’s quite a lot of adverbs that don’t need a hyphen. Why not?
A: Well, the hyphen is all about removing ambiguity. But with “very” or “ly” adverbs, there is no room for misinterpretation. That door is locked. They can only be an adverb; nothing else. So if you ever see “she was a softly-spoken person” or “the very-famous author”, it’s wrong – they don’t need hyphens.

Q: Right, but “well” does. And I guess so do other adverbs that don’t end in “ly”.
A: Yeah that’s it.

Q: So I have a “well-written book”. But what about if the adverb/adjective combo comes AFTER the noun?
A: Good question!

Q: I try.
A: In these instances, most agree that you can say goodbye to the hyphen because it’s now more of a passive description. So, you’d say “I have a well-written article” (hyphen) but then “this article is well written” (no hyphen).

Q: Are you serious? English is whacked…
A: They were indeed smoking something crazy when they were dishing out the rules; we won’t argue with you there.

Q: So just to recap with a four-legged example. It’s “the highly anticipated dog show”. And “the dogs are all well trained”?
A: That’s right – neither requires a hyphen. The first example because “ly” words never need them before OR after, while the second example because “well trained” occurs after the noun (but they would be “well-trained dogs”). Can’t wait for the show though, especially the part where they teach the old dogs new tricks.

Q: Okay, so what about “the extremely well-paid mime artist”?
A: First, we’re not sure there is such a thing as a well-paid mime artist. Haha. And second, no hyphen is needed. It’s an odd rule, but it’s probably because our compound adjective has been usurped by ANOTHER adverb (in this case “extremely”) sliding in front. And that eliminates the need for a hyphen – because “well” is now nestled within this super-duper descriptive extravaganza. No room for ambiguity. We still find the idea of an “extremely well paid mime artist” laughable, but it is correct without a hyphen.

Q: Do numbers need hyphens when they’re adjectives?
A: Sure do, again if before the noun. So you’d say “the 37-year-old mime artist draw a 50-foot house and a five-foot box in the air.” But you could also say “the mime artist was 37 years old, and had made his fortune on houses that were 50 feet tall and boxes five feet wide.” For numbers by themselves, when writing out as words, hyphenate all from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

Q: Cool. So any other family-friendly tips you want to add?
A: Yes, and it couldn’t be more family-friendly if it tried. Remember to be careful with some “ly” words like “family” or “friendly” that aren’t adverbs, so that means they CAN have a hyphen, like a “family-owned restaurant” or a “friendly-looking puppy”. (Although the latter should avoid the former when in certain areas of China…)

Q: And on that deep-fried note, we’ll finish there. So, now that we’ve got adverbs and hyphens out of the way, I have this ‘friend’ who needs some relationship advice…

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