Posted: 27 Jan 2014 08:46 PM PST
A reader pleads,
Punctuation rules are hard to grasp. However, the rule about hyphens and -ly adverbs is easy enough to master:
Not all adverbs end in -ly.
The adverb very has already received special mention in the rule from the AP Stylebook: Very is never followed by a hyphen.
But what about the adverb well?
According to AP, we must hyphenate well when it is part of a compound modifier: well-dressed, well-informed, well-known. AP also advises that a compound that’s hyphenated before a noun is also hyphenated following a form of the verb to be: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken. The play is second-rate.
The University of Iowa writing site concurs:
The editors of the Chicago Manual of Style seem to disagree:
For good measure, I looked in at the American section of OxfordDictionaries.com where I found this directive:
Straightforward instructions, these, but when I looked up “well known” in the U.S. part of OxfordDictionaries, I found this among the examples of usage:
When the experts contradict themselves and each other, what’s an ordinary mortal to do?
Hyphenation is not an exact science. The one rule you can memorize with confidence is that a hyphen is not needed when an -lyadverb begins a phrasal modifier*. For everything else, choose a style guide or dictionary to follow.
*Warning: Not every word that ends in -ly is an adverb. Watch out for nouns like family and supply, and adjectives like only. For example, “family-oriented websites”; supply-side economics”; “only-begotten son.”