Wow, that’s possibly the geekiest post title so far. Why would someone want to write a post about hyphens? What kind of sad person would want to read that? What the fraggle is an adverb? Or an adjective, for that matter?

When asked, most people will say adjectives are ‘describing’ words. And they are, but what do they describe?

Nouns, generally. Actually, absolutely.

A noun is a thing, like an apple or regret. If we talk about a red apple or a great regret, both ‘red’ and ‘great’ are adjectives.

So what’s an adverb? An adverb is another describing word, but rather than nouns, adverbs describe verbs (I’m drinking quickly, right now…), or more to the point of this post, they can describe adjectives. Describe a describing word? What kind of redundant crazy madness is this? The English grammar kind, that’s what. 1500 years of language evolution that sometimes seems designed purely to mess with you.

What was that thing I said before? Adverb–adjective combinations? What? Why is it so hard?

Chill, Winston. It’s actually really easy.

First, let’s consider the whole point of punctuation.

How’d you go? Considered?

I’m hoping you came up with something like:

  • Punctuation makes things easier to read.
  • Punctuation removes ambiguity.

(Hopefully not: I’m not sure; I just sprinkle punctuation marks around like I’m sowing a field.)

Consider a compound adjective: A red-hot pot. Not quite the same thing as a red hot pot, or a red hot-pot. While you’re likely to work out the meaning if hyphens are missing, you will still experience a break in flow; you may even need to re-read the sentence. If the hyphen is in the right place, this shouldn’t happen.

Now think about one of these ‘ly’-adverb–adjective combinations, seen commonly in these phrases:

  • a naturally-aspirated engine
  • an environmentally-friendly solution.

Which should be:

  • a naturally aspirated engine
  • an environmentally friendly solution. (Confusingly, friendly can be both an adjective and an adverb—and a noun, for that matter; here it is used as an adjective…)

A hyphen between naturally and aspirated, or environmentally and friendly, is completely unnecessary, as there is no possible confusion that could result by leaving it out.

I really wish Motor* would stop doing it.


*Note, I don’t want to be one of those guys pointing out faults on the sideline (but, yes, I kind of am…); I’m not picking on Motor; their recent edition was just wigging me out with all its random hyphenation. Marking up the magazine brought on a minor existential crisis: I used a pen, but my handwriting looks like it was done with a crayon… And I can’t undo it… So, I tried to go over my letters, but that looks worse… Then I thought, ‘Oh, crap’, ‘No’ with a full stop behind it looks too admonishing, like I was some kind of repressed Victorian-era Though-Shalt-Not-er, so I turned it into an exclamation mark. Fuck! That’s way too earnest. Who takes this position with what could essentially be a typo? What’s wrong with me? I should have done this digitally rather than marking up a physical copy. I’ll underline it to make it stand out. Oh, no, that looks worse!  I should have drawn a circle around it, written something droll like ‘non-traditional hyphenation’ but I can’t now, that was the best example in the magazine—it was in a subheading!—maybe I could go and buy another copy…