hyphens ly words

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You don't know it, your friends don't know it, even Ms. Glorthropp--your 12-grade English teacher who used to mark you down for not stapling your papers on a 45-degree angle--doesn't know it.

When do you hyphenate compound words?

The big reason most folks don't know it is that there are way too damn many rules for when to hyphenate and when not to hyphenate--to give you an idea, our handbook has 11 pages on the topic--plus, exceptions to the rules are everywhere.

We could never hope to cover all of them in one meager post, but there is a rule we'd like to touch on that's very frequently overlooked: Don't hyphenate -ly adverbs.

Compounds made up of an adverb ending in -ly -- such as "environmentally friendly cleaner," "highly motivated worker," "privately owned land," among many others -- are usually left open.

Why? We've been hard-pressed to find the be-all end-all explanation, but according to most grammarians we've read, it's because the -ly already implies the hyphen, making one redundant.

But letters don't stand in for punctuation marks anywhere else, so we don't grasp why an exception is made in this case.

We concede that compound modifiers with -ly adverbs are usually unambiguous -- and since the purpose of the hyphen is to provide clarity, it does seem a bit redundant in this case. And we acknowledge that exceptions are often made for familiar compounds, such as "high school prom" and "real estate agent" -- but what is clear and familiar to us may not be so to another reader -- and since there's no definite rule on when to hyphenate and when not to hyphenate, it's one of those iffy grammar rules that drives everyone crazy -- which is precisely why Ms. Glorthropp gave up on it and instead got out her protractor.