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Incarcerated but Not Hyphenated

I received an invitation to a professional meeting focused on hiring “formerly-incarcerated talent (FIT).” FIT–that’s a catchy acronym.

But what caught my attention more was the unnecessary use of the hyphen. Did you notice it? These are formerly incarcerated (not hyphenated) individuals.

Here’s the rule: Do not use a hyphen with a modifier that includes an -ly adverb and a participle or an adjective. If that’s too much grammar talk for you, the important part of the rule is the –ly adverb.

These are correct examples:

highly paid executive (-ly adverb and participle)

fully vested employee (-ly adverb and participle)

perfectly prepared meal (-ly adverb and participle)

tightly woven knit (-ly adverb and participle)

heavily guarded compound (-ly adverb and participle)

overly enthusiastic response (-ly adverb and adjective)

barely affordable rent (-ly adverb and adjective)

uniquely talented candidate (-ly adverb and adjective)

mildly amusing joke (-ly adverb and adjective)

formerly incarcerated talent (-ly adverb and participle)

When you use such a structure, you can confidently leave out the hyphen.


But be sure your -ly word is an adverb. These no-adverb phrases are correct with a hyphen:

family-friendly entertainment (family = noun)

jelly-like consistency (jelly = noun)

mealy-mouthed apology (mealy = adjective)

early-access pass (early = adjective)

assembly-line process (assembly = adjective)


For more tips on when to use and when to omit hyphens, check out these past posts:

Understanding Dashes and Hyphens

Re-Elect or Reelect? Pre-Existing or Preexisting?

A Sales Flyer in Need of Hyphens

Your Gluten-Free (Gluten Free?) Recipe

Capitalizing Hyphenated Words in Titles

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

To master hyphens and other punctuation, take my online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals.


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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.

4 comments on “Incarcerated but Not Hyphenated”

  • I’ve been reading your posts for at least 5 years now and this is the first thing I read that I truly did not know! Kudos to you for writing so well that I keep reading for so long…because I find it interesting, entertaining, and well-written (good use of hyphen??). I am admittedly a grammar nerd so there is that. Thank you!

  • Hi Jennifer Ann Elizabeth,

    Thank you for letting me know about your long interest in the blog. I am delighted that I have taught you something!

    Yes, “well-written” is acceptable according to “AP.”

    Thanks for the smile.


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