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


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.

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-attended (in CO)
well-behaved (in CO)
well-beloved (in M-W)
well-born (in COthe others close it up: wellborn)
well-built (in CO)
well-chosen (in CO)
well-conditioned (in M-W and CO)
well-connected (in CO)
well-constructed (in CO)
well-deserved (in CO)
well-designed (in CO)
well-developed (in CO)
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-handled (in M-W and AH)
well-informed (in M-W and CO)
well-kept (in CO)
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-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-received (in CO)
well-set (in M-W)
well-spent (in CO)
well-stocked (in CO)
well-suited (in CO)
well-supported (in CO)
well-thought-out (in CO)
well-thumbed (in CO)
well-traveled (in CO)
well-trodden (in CO)
well-upholstered (in CO)
well-used (in CO)

What does that list mean to you?

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. 

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. 

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. 

Syntax Training


  1. So, ‘well-known’ is the participle behaving like an adjective and ‘well known’ is a verb qualified by an adverb, is that correct?

  2. “Well known” is not a verb. Although you did not give a sample sentence, “well known” is likely to follow the verb “is” or “are.” You may describe it as a “subject complement” or a “predicate adjective.”


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