Public Works and Government Services Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional Links

 
Search TERMIUM Plus®

Well-Hyphenated Compound Adjectives

Sheila Sanders
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 1, 2003, page 32)

While surfing the Web the other day, I smiled when I read about the pet shop that offered to help clients choose a well adjusted lizard. Would that be an "adjusted lizard" who is healthy? The confusion in this phrase stems from one small omission; the reptile should be described as a well-adjusted lizard. Without the hyphen, the single idea of well-adjusted, meaning emotionally stable, is severed and the separate words produce a different meaning: a well-adjusted lizard is not the same as an adjusted reptile who is healthy or well. Though their impact is not always immediately obvious, hyphens contribute to the clarity of our language.

However, well is not always followed by a hyphen, as you will note in some of these instances:

  1. Julie Payette, a Canadian astronaut who is well known, will be giving the keynote speech.
  2. Julie Payette, a well-known Canadian astronaut, will be giving the keynote speech.
  3. A. A. Bronson was looking for an art studio that was well ventilated.
  4. A. A. Bronson was looking for a well-ventilated art studio.

In the first and third examples, where well comes after the noun it modifies (i.e. astronaut, studio), a hyphen is not needed because well functions as an adverb: is well known, was well ventilated.

But in the second and fourth sentences, where well comes before the noun being modified, well functions as part of a compound adjective (a well-known astronaut and a well-ventilated studio, not a well astronaut or a well studio), and so requires a hyphen.

Perhaps we have hit upon a rule: hyphenate compounds with well only when they appear before the nouns being modified, not after. But what’s a rule without an exception or two? Bear in mind that the position of well is merely an indication that a hyphen may be required; its placement in a sentence is not a guarantee. Here are some exceptions that prove the rule:

  1. Mike Weir won the golf tournament with a well-timed shot.

    BUT

  2. Mike Weir won the golf tournament with a shot that was well-timed.
  3. Gwen’s well-intentioned actions led to unfortunate results.

    BUT

  4. Gwen’s actions, though they were well-intentioned, led to unfortunate results.

In the second and fourth cases, well comes after the noun being modified yet it requires a hyphen because the sentences don’t make sense (or don’t have the same sense) if well is left out: the shot was timed; the actions were intentioned. The shot wasn’t timed (no one was holding a stopwatch) but it was well-timed (i.e. timely, opportune) and the actions weren’t intentioned (i.e. deliberate) but they were well-intentioned (i.e. based on good intentions).

If we look at hyphenated terms closely, we see they fall into one of two groups. The first contains compounds that are hyphenated only when used adjectivally. The second is made up of words that are consistently hyphenated because they are standard expressions that designate single concepts. For example, well-appointed, well-founded and well-intentioned do not have the same meaning as appointed, founded, and intentioned. Think of these expressions as "package deals," and always hyphenate them. Here is another compound that is hyphenated no matter where it occurs in a sentence:

Barb is a well-connected editor in Ottawa’s writing community.

As an editor who is well-connected, Barb is often approached with job offers.

The sentences lose their original meaning if well is left out.

If you are unsure which words are considered single concepts, dictionaries make good references, but even they vary in how they present information. For example, The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998) lists the compound adjectives well-developed and well-acquainted, but these do not appear in the list of hyphenated words in the Gage Canadian Dictionary (2000). The reverse is also true, with the hyphenated well-contented appearing in Gage but not shown in the Oxford. This may mean the two sources disagree as to which terms should always be hyphenated, or the difference may be in how the editors choose to list such information.

At this point, when you feel ready to throw up your hands and cry, "So which terms should I hyphenate?", remember that punctuation serves to clarify communication. Include a hyphen if it makes your meaning clearer; otherwise omit it.

There is one other exception. Don’t add a hyphen to well if it is modified:

As a well-regarded member of the firm, Atkinson was chosen to be the spokesperson.

BUT

As a very well regarded member of the firm, Atkinson was chosen to be the spokesperson.

But notice in the following example that well is modified and yet is still followed by a hyphen because it forms part of a standard expression:

The residents did not consider themselves to be very well-informed about security issues.

To summarize, well requires a hyphen when it functions as part of a compound adjective (generally when it precedes a noun). There is no hyphen when well functions as an adverb (usually following the noun being modified and a linking verb, such as to be), or when it is qualified (as in extremely well groomed). And lastly, a hyphen is always required whenever well is part of a standard expression.

Keep these tips on hyphenation in mind, even if you aren’t writing about well-adjusted lizards.

Bibliography

A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker (1996)

College English and Communication, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited (1978)

Editing Canadian English, Macfarlane Walter & Ross (1988 and 2000)

Gage Canadian Dictionary (2000)

Handbook for Writers, Jane Flick and Celia Millward (1993)

ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary (1997)

Mastering Effective English, Tressler-Lewis (1961)

Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (1997)

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998)

The Canadian Press Stylebook (1999)

The Canadian Style, Public Works and Government Services Canada (1997)

The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein (1977)

The Chicago Manual of Style (1993)

The Globe and Mail Style Book (1998)

The Gregg Reference Manual, Fifth Canadian Edition (1999)

The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, First Canadian Edition (1997)

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996)

"The Use of the Hyphen in Compound Modifiers," Peter Gawn, Terminology Update, 1974