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I recently read a comment disparaging an individual as being "ill read" as opposed to well-read. Is this an accepted usage?

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Whether "accepted" or not, it is used. While it offers no definition, Wordnik gives over 20 examples of ill-read in print, many of them current. In addition to being used to define someone who is ignorant or uninformed,

Unfortunately, ill-informed and ill-read people are dishing out worn out judgments. — Archive 2007-05-01

ill-read is also used to refer to someone who has not read much about a specific area or topic

I’m sadly ill-read when it comes to short stories and poetry. — Writer Unboxed » Blog Archive » AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Anne Harris

The other sense in which it is used is to describe a piece of writing as being either misread or not read by as wide an audience as it might deserve:

His only accomplishment, as far as I can see is that he was a celebrity, in the meaning remarked by the late Dan Boorstin, in his ground-breaking, and ill-read book of media criticism, The Image (1961), for which there there is but one criterion: Tim Russert was known mainly for being known. — Tim Russert Has Passed Away

The various meanings of the term are usually obvious from their context.

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Those cases appear to be plays on "ill-bred", which has fallen out of democratic favour. – wlangstroth Apr 15 '11 at 17:03

Yes, it's fine. In this context, ill conforms to MW's third definition:

not suited to circumstances or not to one's advantage

I would hyphenate it as a phrasal adjective, like well-read -- e.g., ill-read.

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well read doesn't usually take a hyphen except it modifies a noun directly, e.g. well-read scholar, and even then, some would still consider hyphenation optional... – Jimi Oke Apr 14 '11 at 1:44
btw, that wasn't my down-vote! – Jimi Oke Apr 14 '11 at 1:53

I think this is more a concern for style than usage. Plenty of English idioms don't have mirror complements, and that's ok. We can still identify and accept them. Perhaps there is a metalogic at work here that says for every phrase we coin, it's reasonable to expect there is a reverse for every obverse side. But there is a price.

As a student I remember crafting these complements several times in my compositions. I can't recall one at the moment, but my best teachers always circled them and added a red "NO" somewhere in the margin. As a composition instructor myself, I was more long-winded: "I understand what you meant. In fact, now I'm thinking about it. What is the topic of your paper again?" My best students did not repeat the practice. And I never thought my teachers were short-winded; they were terse.

English idioms make it difficult to perceive a driving logic behind the language. Which is the lesson; there isn't one. They are sometimes formed by sediment, sometimes by metamorphosis, and sometimes from freshly molten stuff. Sooner or later, you have to take a lot of its features at face value alone.

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Context and audience is key. A more creative medium is more forgiving in regards to playing around with idioms. – MrHen Apr 14 '11 at 3:06

One could not be well at ease, could they? Well, neither could one be ill read!

Seriously, though, while ill read is not a standard phrase, its meaning would certainly not be difficult to deduce, and it makes for colorful writing/reading.

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I would have just agreed with Jimi Oke here. Particularly after checking actual occurrences in written form, but I'm not sure I can endorse his statement that the meaning of this non-standard phrase wouldn't be difficult to deduce.

Ill[-] used as a prefix in this way generally modifies an activity which has been badly performed. But in practice the opposite of well-read wouldn't normally be understood to imply a person who read badly - it would be a person who hadn't really read much "quality" literature at all.

Are we talking about a person who can't read very well at all? Who can, but doesn't bother? Or who only reads trashy pot-boilers? I don't know, and I don't see how anyone else can. We can all have opinions, but it's not a standard phrase - so who's to say what it should mean?

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Your Ngram link is useful in accessing actual use in print, but the graph itself is misleading because of the high number of misreadings of the Roman numeral III for ill and the inclusion of ill as in sick. I thought refining the search for ill-read man or ill-read person might help, but I got no results. – Callithumpian Apr 14 '11 at 2:50
Well, relatively speaking there weren't many occurences anyway. I scanned quite a few myself, and saw a few pre-1850 that might have covered OP's sense. But in the more recent stuff I only found one candidate. I only put the link there to show that it's nowhere near a standard turn of phrase now, and probably never was. – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '11 at 3:06
Here's an attempt at a refined search. I'd say at least a quarter of these ~700 listings since 2000 match the usage in question. You're right, not standard, but I'd argue not rare either. – Callithumpian Apr 14 '11 at 14:13
@Callithumpian: Rather depends on your definition of rare (are we talking Yttrium or Hen's teeth?). Personally I think the usage is ill[-]iterate, but certainly there's no denying it does occur. – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '11 at 14:58

As attribute, ill can have three meanings:

  • poor in quality
  • harmful
  • (especially of fortune) not favorable

About the usage of the hyphen, the NOAD has the following note, which apply for both ill and well:

The adverb well is often used in combination with past participles to form compound adjectives: well-adjusted, well-intentioned, well-known, and so on. As far as hyphenation is concerned, there are three general rules:
1. if the compound adjective is placed before the noun (i.e., in the attributive position), it should be hyphenated (a well-intentioned remark);
2. if the compound adjective is preceded by an adverb (much, very, surprisingly, etc.), the compound adjective is open (a thoroughly well prepared student);
3. if the compound adjective is placed after the noun or verb (i.e., in the predicate position), it may, but need not, be hyphenated (her remark was well-intentioned or her remark was well intentioned).
Likewise, other, similar compounds with better, best, ill, little, lesser, least, etc., are hyphenated before the noun (a little-known author), often open after a noun or verb (the author was little known), and open if modified by an adverb (a very little known author).

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