GrammarPhile Blog

To Hyphenate or Not.....

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Feb 26, 2014 6:00:00 AM

Psychiatrist_and_patientIf you're an avid reader of our blog posts, then you know all about adverbs that do not end in ly and can be mistaken for adjectives. For example, An ill-clothed baby is correctly hyphenated, since ill is an adverb linked to clothed.

Today, we cover adverbs that do not end in ly but cannot be mistaken for adjectives.

Too, very, almost, always, seldom, not, and other common adverbs do not end in ly, but they cannot be adjectives either. They do not normally require hyphens when used in compounds: too loving parent, very comprehensive report, almost forgivable sin, always polite manner, seldom simple rules, not unwelcome guest.

They can be used in multiple compounds, still without hyphens: too seldom loving parent, almost always very comprehensive reports, and so on. They do require hyphens in unusual compounds, such as too-many-cooks situation, in which the noun phrase too many cooks is used as an adjective.

Ever and never are special cases. They do not end in ly and they cannot be adjectives, but they usually should be hyphenated in compounds before the modified word: ever-polite manner, ever-loving parent, never-simple rules, never-comprehensive reports. Often they should be hyphenated in compounds, after the modified word as well, depending on whether they can be read as modifying the verb in the sentence.

Thus His mother is ever-loving needs the hyphen, because in the common compound ever-loving the adverb ever clings to the participle; His mother was never loving should not have a hyphen, because never more naturally modifies the verb was. Note, however, that sometimes ever is used when always might be expected, and then the hyphen should not be used: His mother, though ever loving, never allowed him to use her surfboard.

The ear is generally a good judge of whether to hyphenate such compounds; if they are run together, they should be hyphenated. Some compounds with ever have solidified into single words: everblooming, everlasting.

Just one more note on hyphenating, having to do with adjectival compounds preceded by adverbs.
When an adverb, such as very, modifies a normally hyphenated adjectival compound, such as well-grounded, the hyphen is sometimes dropped: a very well grounded argument. The hyphen is dropped from the compound if the preceding modifying adverb can naturally be understood as modifying the first element of the compound rather than the whole compound. In a very odd-looking argument, the adverb very must be understood as modifying the whole compound odd-looking, not just the word odd, so the hyphen is retained.

More examples:

  • a too well grounded argument, but certainly well-grounded argument
  • ever-loving spouse, but ever more loving union
  • never-final argument, but never entirely final argument

Some writers add hyphens to multiword compounds instead of dropping them: very-well-grounded argument, never-entirely-final argument, and so on. The hyphens perform their legitimate function, binding words together, but they are excessive, distracting, and contrary to convention.

Topics: hyphenation, adverbs

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