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A Well-Known Problem: Hyphens With “Well” Words

UPDATED IN OCTOBER 2022

A reader wrote to me today asking about a sentence with the phrase “well known.” Is he “well known for his philanthropy” or “well-known for his philanthropy”?

These days I can give a quick answer: He is well-known for his philanthropy. The phrase well-known needs that hyphen.

Why? Because the dictionaries say so. I just checked my American Heritage College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and Canadian Oxford Dictionary. All three indicate that well-known is hyphenated. With my three dictionaries in agreement on well-known, chances are good that your dictionary agrees too.

A graphic explaining that well-known requires a hyphen according to American Heritage College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

And the style manuals defer to dictionaries when it comes to hyphens. The hyphen sections of The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook specifically recommend using a dictionary to answer questions about hyphens in compound terms.

Unfortunately, dictionaries agree only some of the time. For example, in the alphabetized list of well- words below, only the ones without dictionary notes next to them appear and are hyphenated in all three of my dictionariesThe others appear with hyphens in only one or two dictionaries, or they appear closed up (wellborn) or open (well done)

well-adjusted (in M-W and CO)
well-advised (in M-W and CO)
well-aimed (in CO)
well-appointed
well-attended (in CO)
well-balanced
well-behaved (in CO)
well-beloved (in M-W)
well-born (in COthe others close it up: wellborn)
well-bred
well-built (in CO)
well-chosen (in CO)
well-conditioned (in M-W and CO)
well-connected (in CO)
well-constructed (in CO)
well-defined
well-deserved (in CO)
well-designed (in CO)
well-developed (in CO)
well-disposed
well-documented (in CO)
well-done (in M-W and AHCO renders it open: well done)
well-dressed (in CO)
well-earned (in CO)
well-educated (in CO)
well-endowed (in M-W and CO)
well-established (in CO)
well-favored (in M-W and AH)
well-fed (in AH and CO)
well-fixed (in M-W and AH)
well-formed (in CO)
well-found (in M-W and AH)
well-founded
well-groomed
well-grounded
well-handled (in M-W and AH)
well-heeled
well-informed (in M-W and CO)
well-intentioned
well-kept (in CO)
well-knit
well-known
well-liked (in CO)
well-lit, well-lighted (in CO)
well-loved (in CO)
well-made (in CO)
well-maintained (in CO)
well-mannered (in AH and CO)
well-marked (in CO)
well-matched (in CO)
well-meaning
well-meant
well-off (in M-W and AHCO renders it open: well off)
well-oiled (in M-W and CO)
well-ordered (in M-W and CO)
well-organized (in CO)
well-paid (in CO)
well-placed (in M-W–CO renders it open: well placed)
well-planned (in CO)
well-prepared (in CO)
well-preserved (in CO)
well-proportioned (in CO)
well-read
well-received (in CO)
well-rounded
well-set (in M-W)
well-spent (in CO)
well-spoken
well-stocked (in CO)
well-suited (in CO)
well-supported (in CO)
well-taken
well-thought-of
well-thought-out (in CO)
well-thumbed (in CO)
well-timed
well-to-do
well-traveled (in CO)
well-trodden (in CO)
well-turned
well-upholstered (in CO)
well-used (in CO)
well-worn

What does that list mean to you?

Consult a Dictionary

It means that you should consult your dictionary when you wonder about whether you should hyphenate a compound word. It also means that you should agree on a dictionary if you write, edit, or proofread with or for others. You don’t want to write “The money was well-spent” and have a colleague change it to “The money was well spent.” My preferred dictionary is The American Heritage College Dictionary.

And there’s another rule to follow: If you use a well word that does not appear in your dictionary, you still need to hyphenate it if it appears before the word it describes:

Her well-written memo impressed me.
I appreciated sharing his well-equipped kitchen.

Compound Expression After A Noun

When the compound expression comes after the word it describes, The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook handle it differently.

Chicago recommends that such words are “hyphenated before but not after a noun”:

I thought her memo was well written.
His kitchen is well equipped.

After “To Be”

However, AP states that “when a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion”:

I thought her memo was well-written. (Was is a “to be” verb.)
His kitchen is well-equipped. (Is is a “to be” verb.)

As you can see, it’s essential to agree on a style manual when you work with others on written communication.

I hope you feel well informed (according to American Heritage and Chicago) after reading this post.

The Takeaway

Consult a dictionary to decide on hyphenation and stick to one dictionary (this writer prefers The American Heritage College Dictionary).   If a compound well- word is not in the dictionary, use a hyphen.  When the compound expression comes after the noun it describes, the hyphen is not needed. Unless the compound expression appears after the verb “to be,” in which case a hyphen is needed.

The takeaway: 1. Consult a dictionary (and stick to one) 2. Use a hyphen is the compound expression is after the verb "to be" 3. No hyphen is needed if the compound expression is after a noun

For more articles discussing hyphenation:

Are Numbers Hyphenated When Written Out? Let’s Find Out.

Capitalizing Hyphenated Words in Titles

Quick Tip on Hyphenation

Lynn

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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