Please Dehyphenate Your “-ly”-Endowed Adverbs

Not only does this quick grammar lesson keep the blog name honest, it addresses an increasingly common mistake I see in biomedical writing. Or should I say, “increasingly-common mistake” for effect. Yes, it’s true … a growing number of authors seem to think it looks proper to insert a hyphen between -ly adverbs (Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, get your adverb here!) and the word they modify.

Hyphenated modifiers never involve an -ly word. Ever. The suffix clearly identifies the -ly term as modifying the word following … no hyphen needed. So stop inserting the damn hyphen!

Okay, here’s the deal. Hyphens in compound modifiers help clarify which words go with which and which are descriptive versus part of the object being modified. In the absence of an -ly suffix, careful grouping & connection of words with hyphens is important to keep the meaning clear. A “well-hung (get your mind out of the gutter) portrait” could also be described as a “nicely hung portrait.” Longitudinally collected data could be long-term data.

With some lengthy scientific phrases, hyphen placement becomes critical for the meaning. For example: “small-molecule protein-protein interaction antagonist.” We have an antagonist. What kind of antagonist? Protein-protein interaction antagonist. What kind of protein-protein interaction antagonist? A small-molecule (not a small … pause for effect … molecule) protein-protein interaction antagonist. Make it overexpressed and upregulated, and you’ve got quite a party here.

Take home lesson: insert the hyphen where it is needed to clarify linkages among modifying words and distinguish these modifying words/phrases from the object they modify. Say the phrase slowly and see which words need to go together to best clarify the meaning for the reader.

Clear as mud? I thought so.

Maybe some day I’ll even get you folks to spell “Acknowledgment” correctly (using the preferred versus the generally accepted spelling, that is).


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