Hyphenated expressions and their place in a sentence

Somehow, I became confused about how to treat compound modifiers that are used not before a noun but elsewhere in a sentence. These are the compounds such as well-known and low-key. They are hyphenated when they appear before a noun: a well-known singer, a low-key diplomat.

But when they appear after a verb, say, I got it in my head that they didn’t need the hyphen. In fact, the convention, as explained in the Gregg Reference Manual, is that if the compound modifier is “in an inverted word order or an altered form, retain the hyphen.” (Gregg, 10th edition, Section 815b)

So the singer is known well; therefore, the hyphen appears when I write, the singer is well-known. The dog looks friendly, so the dog is friendly-looking. The purchase is one that is exempt from taxes, so the purchase is tax-exempt.

The corollary for this that if these hyphenated compound modifiers appear elsewhere in a sentence and serve another function, the hyphen is dropped, as Gregg points out. So I would write about an up-to-date report, but would write, Bring me up to date on the progress of the report. (Gregg, 10th edition, Section 815a)

Maybe I will be able to keep it straight from now on, but just in case, I am putting a sticky note on that section in my copy of Gregg.


3 Responses to “Hyphenated expressions and their place in a sentence”

  1. Caroline

    Hi Pam! Just wondered if it were an AP thing to hyphenate “friendly looking,” as all I’ve learned (and I use Chicago at work) says no hyphens after adverbs.


  2. Pam Nelson

    Thanks for the comment, Caroline. AP does say not to use a hyphen between an adverb ending in -ly and a adjective it modifies. “Friendly” is an adjective, though, so I don’t think the AP rule on hyphens and adverbs applies.

  3. David Buchalter

    Pam Nelson, thank you. The article is just what I needed.