Well Written or Well-Written?

Is the following sentence correct?

This book is well written.

Yes? You're right. It's perfectly correct. No broken rules there. Now check out the following sentence. Is it correct, too.

This is a well written book.

No, it is not correct. But why? It's basically the same sentence as the first, except that the phrase "well written" comes before "book" rather than after it. But that is precisely what makes the difference. Here's the rule:

  * Hyphenate the elements of a compound modifier only if that modifier precedes the noun.

I don't know about you, but whenever I read a grammar rule like that, it takes me back to public school days when well-meaning English teachers crammed our minds with undecipherable rules. "What in the world is a compound modifier?" I should have asked. But of course I didn't because the bedazzling Priscilla Price sat right next to me. It's not that I didn't want her to think I didn't know what a compound modifier was. No one knew. It's just that I didn't want her to think I cared what a compound modifier was. That would not be cool.

But I assume you care because you're reading this, and you're not ashamed of caring. So let me explain. A modifier is a word or phrase that describes another word. Modifiers can be adjectives or adverbs, but for our purposes, that doesn't matter. So if you say, "That's an adjective," or "That's an adverb," I'm happy for you, but I really don't care.

A compound modifier is a modifier made of more than one word. That's why it's called a "compound" modifier.

So, what the rule says is that if the compound modifier comes before the noun it modifies, hyphenate it. But if it comes after the noun, don't hyphenate it. On that basis, the sentences we grappled with earlier should be written as follows:

This book is well written. (The compound modifier comes after the noun, so no hyphen.)

This is a well-written book. (The compound modifier comes before the noun, so it gets a hyphen.)

Who comes up with these rules and why? No one knows for sure, but I have a personal theory that a group of Nazi war criminals eluded capture, went underground and decided that creating rules like this would be the most cruel thing they could do to the guys who beat them in WWII.

It gets worse. Look at the next sentence. Is it correct?

This is a beautifully-written book.

I hate to tell you, but it is not correct. "But why?" you say. "The phrase 'beautifully written' is a compound modifier, right?" Right. "And it precedes the noun it modifies in the sentence, right?" Right. "So it should be hyphenated, right?"

Wrong. It should not be hyphenated because of yet another rule perpetrated by the underground war criminal group that states ...

  * Don't place a hyphen after a word that ends in "ly" - even if the word is part of a compound modifier that precedes the noun it modifies. The exception is if the "ly" that ends the word is part of the core word itself, as in "family" (a family-run business).

At this point you have probably either stopped reading in despair or are hopelessly frustrated and confused. It is helpful at times like this to remember what the Buddha said: "Life is suffering." It would also be helpful to commit the three sentences we have discussed to memory and use them as guides or templates when you have questions about hyphenating compound modifiers. This will keep you out of trouble 98.7 percent of the time. When you memorize the following correctly written sentences, pay special attention to the presence or absence of hyphens:

   1. This book is well written.
   2. This is a well-written book.
   3. This is a beautifully written book.

Finally, here are a few examples of these rules in action. All these sentences are correct, and hopefully you now know why.

He is a well-known actor.

He is an actor who is well known.

She received a $5,000-a-year bonus.

She received a bonus of $5,000 a year.

It was a naturally flavored food.

The food was naturally flavored.

About the author: Steve Osborne is author of "Writing Tips for the Real World," a blog at http://www.thewritersbag.com. He is an award-winning freelance writer and writing instructor. His blog teaches writing tips, techniques and strategies designed to help people from all walks of life turn the written word into a powerful success tool in their careers and personal lives.

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