Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar

John Rentoul

1689 Warning: this item contains high strength grammarAnd a badly painted door (right). It is about compound adjectives, the hypenating or non-hyphenating thereof. The priceless Guy Keleny, proving that he is a prince among pedants:

“The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: ‘This mission was ill-conceived, poorly-planned and embarrassingly-executed.’” That is from Tuesday’s report of William Hague’s Commons statement about the SAS farce in Libya. It raises two issues about punctuation.

First, the commas around “Sir Menzies Campbell”. Consider the difference between “My brother Tom is a jolly fellow”, and “My brother, Tom, is a jolly fellow”. In the first sentence, the name Tom tells the reader which brother the speaker is referring to. In the second, the writer has only one brother, so “my brother” is enough to make the identification, and the name is just further information about him.

Similarly, the commas around “Sir Menzies Campbell” imply that there is only one former Liberal Democrat leader. But in fact there are several. So leave the commas off.

Next, the hyphens. (Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar.) Adjectives can be used either attributively (“the house has a red door”) or predicatively (“The door is red”). A similar distinction can be applied to the past participles of verbs. Attributive: “The house has a painted door.” Predicative: “The door is painted.” Furthermore, the adjective or participle can be qualified by an adverb. Attributive: “The house has a well-painted door.” Predicative: “The door is well painted.” Note that adverb and participle are joined by a hyphen in the attributive function only, not in the predicative. I know this distinction is frequently ignored, but let’s show a bit of class by observing it.

There is one more crucial point. Even when the participle is attributive, there is no hyphen when the adverb ends in –ly. That is an arbitrary convention, but it holds nonetheless. So if the painters turn out to be cowboys , there is no hyphen: “The house has a badly painted door.”

The hyphen is right only under quite limited conditions – where the participle is being used attributively and the adverb does not end in –ly. In the passage above, two adverbs end in –ly and all the participles are predicative. So, no hyphens.

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  • porkfright

    Anyone expecting me to alter the way I use commas, exclamation marks and hyphens has got a damned long wait ahead.

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