Exceptions to the Rule: When to Skip the Hyphen

Even when a compound adjective precedes the noun it modifies

The word grammar in all caps viewed through a small magnifying glass.
The word grammar in all caps viewed through a small magnifying glass.
Image from PDPics from Pixabay

my post “When You Should Hyphenate, Open, or Close a Compound Word,” I explain a few rules, including:

When an open compound word is used as a compound adjective that precedes the noun it modifies, it should be hyphenated.

This rule applies in the following examples:

  • She is a well-liked student.
  • That was an ill-advised decision.
  • This contains high-quality ingredients.
  • That is a little-known secret.

As with most grammatical rules, though, there are exceptions. Consider the following sentences:

  • Of the two, that is the more popular option.
  • In the group, this is the most popular option.
  • Of the pair, that is the less popular option.
  • In the group, this is the least popular option.

Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, once stated: “In general, comparative or superlative modifiers with ‘more,’ ‘most,’ ‘less’ or ‘least’ don’t require hyphens. Use one only if it’s needed to avoid ambiguity.” If references to things such as “comparative or superlative modifiers” make your head hurt, it might be helpful to simply memorize this rule, which applies regardless of the placement of the compound word in question within a sentence:

Do not add a hyphen in a compound word after more, most, less, or least.

Less special compounds

Keep in mind, though, that “comparative or superlative modifiers” with “lesser,” “better,” or “best” do take hyphens when they precede the nouns they modify:

  • He is a lesser-known expert on that subject.
  • His father is a better-known expert on that subject.
  • His grandfather is the best-known expert on that subject.

So it might be helpful to memorize this rule as well if you think you might confuse these words with their hyphen-averse counterparts noted above:

Add a hyphen in a compound word after lesser, better, or best when that compound word precedes the noun it modifies.

One way to remember

Another option is to simply drum into your brain “more, most, less, least” over and over again, since this is the group that defies the standard rule related to hyphenating compound words that precede the nouns they modify. When I was a kid, I’d repeat facts for tests while I rode my bike around my neighborhood. Just imagining my 10-year-old self repeating “more, most, less, least” while she pedals along helps me remember that each of these four super-special words is even more special because it never, ever takes a hyphen. It also helps to consider the saying “more or less” as a reminder that both “more” and “less” (and their counterparts “most” and “least”) are in this unique group.

I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction when I’m not working as a copy editor. Author of the novel One Sister’s Song.

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Karen DeGroot Carter

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Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

Karen DeGroot Carter

Written by

Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

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