Grammar Are We Hyphenating Well? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Are We Hyphenating Well?

The proper use of good and well in writing is a common grammatical topic. For many, the distinction can be uncertain.

An equally slippery subject is whether to hyphenate well when it helps describe a noun. For example, do we write a well-dressed man or a well dressed man?

Because well here is an adverb that modifies dressed, some might say not to punctuate the compound description; this would align with the guideline that omits punctuation from adverbial modifiers ending in -ly: a thoroughly informed spokesperson. Some might also believe that only compounded adjectives would be hyphenated: bluish-green eyes.

As a general rule, a compound adjective can include an adverb. The compound is often hyphenated before a noun but not after a noun (a well-dressed man, the man is well dressed). Well also would not be hyphenated when compounded with other adverbial modifiers, such as very (a very well dressed man).

At the same time, further investigation reveals that not all style authorities agree on this subject. The Associated Press Stylebook advises us to hyphenate well in a compound modifier both when it precedes a noun and when the compound follows the verb to be: a well-dressed man, the man is well-dressed.

AP’s rationale is that retaining the hyphen in compound modifiers after the noun helps avoid confusion. For example, if the hyphen is omitted in a statement such as he is a little known man, the reader might interpret it as meaning he is a known man who is little. Adding the hyphen clarifies: little-known man tells us he is one few people know. Writing the man is well-dressed remains consistent with AP’s chosen style.

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, doesn’t concur with this stance. Its editors find hyphenation unnecessary when a compound modifier with well follows a noun, including compounds that might be hyphenated in dictionaries. It would therefore encourage us to write the man is well dressed.

Other style hawks assert that certain compounds with well should retain their hyphens in all positions because they are single concepts or standard expressions. These individuals would cite examples such as well-appointed, well-founded, well-connected, and well-intentioned; to them, each compound’s meaning differs from its unmodified adjective (appointed, founded, connected, intentioned), making well vital to clarity.

By this reasoning, these compound concepts or expressions would retain their hyphen even when well is modified by another adverb such as very: a very well-appointed man.

With all this considered, we still might ask ourselves: When do we truly need to hyphenate? The experts don’t agree and even seemingly reliable guidelines can have exceptions. The answer is that rules of hyphenation for well are not engraved in stone.

As with anything else in our writing, clarity is king. If a hyphen makes our meanings clearer, we keep it; otherwise, we leave it out as nonessential. Consistency matters as well. As long as we choose a style and stick to it, our usage will help sustain our writing rather than distract from it.


Pop Quiz

Choose the correct treatment according to the general rule of hyphenating well described in the article.

1. With her connections, she has become a (very well-known / very well known) businessperson in the community.

2. I find him (well versed / well-versed) in Shakespearean drama.

3. She is always (well prepared / well-prepared) for her meetings.

4. Their (well-behaved / well behaved) children are good company whenever they visit.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. With her connections, she has become a (very well-known / very well known) businessperson in the community.

2. I find him (well versed / well-versed) in Shakespearean drama.

3. She always comes (well prepared / well-prepared) for her meetings.

4. Their (well-behaved / well behaved) children are good company whenever they visit.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

11 responses to “Are We Hyphenating Well?”

  1. Janice H. says:

    The following sentence is inherently ambiguous: He is a wild animal trainer. Clarifications: “He is an animal trainer who is wild.” “He is a trainer of wild animals.” I think there is no way to clarify with punctuation the original sentence. What would you say?

    • says:

      To the careful reader, He is a wild animal trainer does mean that “He is an animal trainer who is wild.”

      On the other hand, He is a wild-animal trainer clearly means “He is a trainer of wild animals.”

      That is a good example of the importance of proper hyphen placement.

      • denny carpen says:

        He is a wild-animal trainer.
        This can also be interpreted as “He trains as though he is a wild animal.”
        Absolutely clearer would be “He is a trainer of wild animals.”

        • says:

          Placing a hyphen between the words “wild” and “animal” creates the compound adjective “wild-animal” which describes the word “trainer.” With the compound adjective, the meaning of the sentence is “He is a trainer of wild animals.” Without the hyphen, you are describing an animal trainer who is wild. Please see our post Hyphenating Between Words.

  2. Nicole Castonguay says:

    What about well-being? It seems to be that that is always hyphenated. Is it an exception?

    • says:

      The word well-being is a compound noun. It is hyphenated in American English. In British English it is spelled as one word (wellbeing).

  3. Brad says:

    This is actually very simple, and in scientific writing there is zero debate on this issue (for such simple cases at least). You always avoid ambiguity.

    “The man is well dressed” is a completely different thing from a “well-dressed man”.

    What you seem to be missing is that the word well can be an adjective. A well man is one who is healthy and a well, dressed, man as opposed to an infirmed, disrobed man, could be a viable distinction in a hospital setting. The ambiguity does not exist with a “The man is well-dressed.” Hyphens for compound modifiers not needed when there is no third word to cause ambiguity.

    In short, “a well-dressed man” absolutely is hyphenated and “The man is well dressed” certainly is not. This has nothing to do with style.

    • says:

      Could one theoretically write “a well dressed man” to mean a man who is both dressed and physically well? Yes. Would more than a couple people ever express it that way? Likely not. Colloquial repetition has hard-wired us to read and hear “well dressed” as a compound modifier meaning one who is dressed well. Your interpretation would probably cause a fair amount of miscommunication.

  4. Galen Bickel says:

    Excellent clarification! Thank you!

  5. Eran Greenberg says:

    I know this is an old post but I encountered it while trying to figure out an interesting case.
    I have seen multiple scientific papers using the term “well-watered.”
    An example: “…around roots of well-watered plants…”
    I originally assumed this meant that the plants were watered using water from a well. However, eventually I figured out that at least in some (maybe all) cases the authors meant that the plants were provided with enough water.

  6. Jon says:

    There may be a more lucid, engaging article on considerations of hyphenation, but I doubt it. Well done!

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