Sunday, April 1, 2012

Going Over the Common Hyphen Argument

Over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan last week, a former colleague and I talked about everything from traffic to baseball to cosmetic surgery to, yes, grammar. What started as polite dinner-table conservation rather quickly morphed into a heated discussion about hyphen usage. Rather than toss La Fro Pilo's tasty risotto at one another, however, we agreed to disagree about the following.

My friend April insists companies such as Hormel and Oscar Mayer that sell fully cooked bacon have no reason to be ashamed. Au contraire, April! A hyphen is needed to join an adverb ending in -ly and an adjective. It should be "fully-cooked bacon." I even offered event-specific examples, including "a carefully-planned meal" and "a dimly-lit restaurant."

So, what do you think, readers? Who's right? Oh, wait. You don't have all the facts. Before you make a final decision, you should take a closer look at the first letter of each word in the title of today's post.


And La Fro Pilo? Good luck getting a reservation. The restaurant's name is an anagram for...

April Fool!


  1. Another great post! Thanks.

  2. Sometimes hyphens are ugly, especially when the two words are not on the same line. You would have "Fully-" over "Cooked". That is probably why the graphic artist decided to skip the unsightly hyphen. Happy April Fool's Day.

    1. John, I hope you realize that, as part of my trick, I pretended to incorrectly argue that there should have been a hyphen. “Fully cooked bacon” does NOT require a hyphen. It’s correct as it appears on the box. The graphic artist knew, I suppose, that compound modifiers (two or more words that express a single concept) that precede a noun are NOT hyphenated when one of the words is “very” or an adverb ending in “-ly.” So, for example, we have “fully cooked bacon” and “very good book” and, despite what the foolish Owen of the post had to say, “carefully planned meal.” Compound modifiers are hyphenated before nouns in other cases, such as “first-quarter touchdown” and “full-time job” and “well-known actor.” What confuses some folks is that compound modifiers need a hyphen when they contain an “-ly” word that is NOT an adverb. Two examples: “family-friendly atmosphere” and “supply-side economics.” In these instances, “family” and “supply” are not adverbs; they are nouns that happen to end in “-ly.” I hope this makes sense.

      And, just for argument’s sake, let’s say that this was a box of “first-time bacon,” whatever that may be, and that “first” and “time” were on separate lines. The hyphen is required in this case, though you argue that the graphic artist may opt to omit it for appearance purposes. You may be right. I’m sure this is the justification many artists and advertisers use when leaving out a hyphen where one is needed. I think you can guess my stance on this matter. As an editor, I believe if a hyphen is required it must be used. I put accuracy over aesthetics every time … even if it may look “ugly” on a box of bacon.

  3. Wow, how did I miss this post - and this lesson in English class? Thanks for teaching me something new! :)