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The proper use of good and well in writing is a common
grammatical topic; we last addressed it in September 2017. 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.
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
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
View this article on our website
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
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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
3) She always comes (well prepared / well-prepared) for
4) Their ( well-behaved / well behaved) children are good company whenever they visit.
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