Do you over-hyphenate?

It is rare that the omission of such a linking hyphen causes real ambiguity. Even so, we naturally avert confusion in speech—we almost invariably run together such combinations as ill-clothed when they precede the word they modify and often when they follow the word as well, but we are likely to pronounce combinations with ly adverbs, such as badly clothed, as two distinct words. We should do the same in writing, running together certain combinations with a hyphen. Sometimes the ear is the best judge when a hyphen is desirable, but there are some general principles and also some common conventions for specific words used in compounds.

There are many adverbs that do not end in ly and can also be adjectives, among them half, well, better, best, fast, slow, little, and long. The eight listed and some others should routinely be followed by a hyphen when they are used in adverb + participle compounds that come before the modified word: half-asleep audience, well-dressed student, better-clothed editor, best-written book, fast-moving boats, slow-moving traffic, little-used brain, long-awaited retirement.

Not all these compounds need hyphens when they follow the modified word, but some do: The parent was well dressed, The editor was better clothed, His brain was little used, and The speech was long awaited; but The audience was half-asleep, The traffic was fast-moving, The van was slow-moving, and probably The book was best-written, though the last example is an odd one that would be unlikely to occur.

Usage varies on fine points of punctuation, though, and the ear is often the best judge. Half is particularly variable. In one of the examples in the preceding paragraph, The audience was half-asleep, the hyphen seems desirable, perhaps because without the hyphen one might think the sentence meant that half those in the audience were asleep and half were awake. But often it does not: The man was half dead, The door was half open, The meal was half finished. It is also tricky when it is used to modify verbs, usually requiring a hyphen before transitive verbs but not before intransitive verbs: He half-turned the knob, but He half turned and looked out the window.

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