A little-appreciated little appreciated point

Guy Keleny’s Saturday column in the Independent – correcting the paper’s recent linguistic failings – is always a treat. Today he takes issue with the sentence “This mission was ill-conceived, poorly-planned and embarrassingly-executed.”

(Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar.) Adjectives can be used either attributively (“the house has a red door”) or predicatively (“The door is red”). A similar distinction can be applied to the past participles of verbs. Attributive: “The house has a painted door.” Predicative: “The door is painted.” Furthermore, the adjective or participle can be qualified by an adverb. Attributive: “The house has a well-painted door.” Predicative: “The door is well painted.” Note that adverb and participle are joined by a hyphen in the attributive function only, not in the predicative. I know this distinction is frequently ignored, but let’s show a bit of class by observing it.

There is one more crucial point. Even when the participle is attributive, there is no hyphen when the adverb ends in –ly. That is an arbitrary convention, but it holds nonetheless. So if the painters turn out to be cowboys , there is no hyphen: “The house has a badly painted door.”

The hyphen is right only under quite limited conditions – where the participle is being used attributively and the adverb does not end in –ly. In the passage above, two adverbs end in –ly and all the participles are predicative. So, no hyphens.

High-strength grammar, and plenty of class. But I have one nit to pick: the lack of hyphenation when the adverb ends in –ly is not an arbitrary convention. It’s for clarity.

Some words – well, ill, high, low, little, long, best and others – can function as adjectives or adverbs. A hyphen makes it clear that a particular use is adverbial.

A well-treated patient is not the same as a well treated patient: the former has been treated well; the latter has been treated and is well. The best-located reporter is the one in the best place to get the story, while the best located reporter is the best we’ve been able to find. A long-ignored film has failed to attract attention for years; a long ignored film may be new but has perhaps been disregarded on account of its length.

True, most of the time the context gives little risk of ambiguity (no one is likely to describe a mission as ill and conceived), but the convention applies consistently. There’s no need for a hyphen before* –ly adverbs because there’s no danger of them being mistaken for adjectives.

* Oops. I mean ‘after’.

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  • substuff  On March 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm


  • Mil  On March 16, 2011 at 7:52 am

    This is a lovely overview. I was doing the putting in hyphens/not putting in hyphens bit with the adverbs without knowing why – in fact, I thought I was carving out a new rule for myself.

    Love to know why though! More please …

  • Patrick Neylan  On April 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I’ve been wrestling with those rules myself. The way I see it, adverbs modify verbs but they also modify adjectives, and you wouldn’t use a hyphen with a verb.

    PS. Have I misunderstood something, or should that be “There’s no need for a hyphen AFTER –ly adverbs”?

  • stroppyeditor  On April 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    I remember that when I came across this rationale for the rule I’d long followed without quite knowing why, it was a lovely feeling of enlightenment.

    Patrick: yes, I meant after. Drat. Although it’s still true that you don’t need a hyphen before, either.

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