Column: What to do with those highfalutin hyphenations

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Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t know something, so you just avoid it altogether? For instance, because I don’t know how to swim, I avoid parties on megayachts. I can’t tell you how many yacht-vitations I’ve turned down through the years because of my lackluster swimming abilities.

How many of us avoid writing words that may or may not need hyphens because we don’t know the rules? I know it’s not just me. Today, I’m going to focus on when to hyphenate those tricky adverb phrases known as compound modifiers.

The main reason we know about the existence of adverbs is because we played Mad Libs on family road trips growing up. A compound modifier is what we get when a hyphen connects an adjective with an adverb: a well-known salsa dancer. In this case, “well” is the adverb that modifies the adjective “known.”

When it comes to the compound modifier “newly elected,” as in the example “newly elected president,” we don’t need a hyphen. Why is this? Look, I didn’t come up with the rules, but compound modifiers containing “-ly” adverbs do not need hyphens. I suppose this is because it seems redundant to add a hyphen to a compound modifier with an adverb ending in “ly.” We already know that the adverb is modifying the word next to it.

Because we’re not sure about this rule, we tend to add the hyphen anyway. You’d think that the compound modifier “rarely seen” photos of Bigfoot needs a hyphen, and you don’t want to seem unintelligent when you email the photos to your friends in the Bigfoot Photo Society, so you drop in the hyphen just to be safe.

Adding the hyphen just because you don’t want your fellow BPS members to think you’re dumb is a classic example of hypercorrection. We want to appear smart, so we overcorrect our speech or writing.

Here’s the way to think about compound modifiers with “-ly” adverbs: Treat the adverb like you would the word “very.” Although the word “very” is usually a lazy word to drop into your syntax, you would never be tempted to add a hyphen between it and the adjective it modifies: a very tired toll booth worker. When it comes to “-ly” adverbs, think about them the same way as you would the word “very.” When you do, you’ll impress your Bigfoot-loving friends with your newly discovered word knowledge.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of “Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life.” Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.


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