In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One at 1.3.230 Hotspur refers to Hal contemptuously as

that same sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales

At Internet Shakespeare Editions the “Modern” edition hyphenates as above, but old-spelling transcriptions of the early printings show no hyphenation (but various capitalization, something that can also function to clarify when a group of words are to be parsed as one):

that same sword and buckler prince of Wales [Q0]
that same sword and buckler Prince of Wales [Q1]
that same Sword and Buckler Prince of Wales [F1]

My question is, How old is the now standard practice of hyphenating compound adjectives (i.e., phrases used as adjectives to modify nouns directly following)? It is easy to find affirmations of this practice as a rule, but I have not succeeded in tracking down its history and age.

  • Well, Brian, it's great that you read part of Heny IV, and did you do any research on the Question or what, pleaes? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 3 '18 at 21:10
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    Believe it or not, the answer is in this book, written by three Japanese scholar, but I can't quote the relevant bit without too much work: books.google.com/… compound nouns go back to Sanskrit.....[I know that is not the question per se] – Lambie Apr 4 '18 at 17:52
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    @Lambie: I couldn't find anything about hyphens in that book. Could you mention the relevant search term you used? – herisson Apr 5 '18 at 16:57
  • @sumelic You're right about the word hyphen. However, take a look at compound words and compound adjectives. They all have hyphens and they discuss their formation and use hyphens all over the place but in fact do not mention the word! Amazing, really. I just realized that. – Lambie Apr 5 '18 at 17:16
  • @Lambie: One thing I wonder though is if the examples are given with normalized orthography and punctuation ... e.g. the Old English examples use macrons to mark vowel length, although my understanding is that the mark is not actually present in most OE texts – herisson Apr 5 '18 at 17:19

To identify a “no later than” date for the use in English publishing of hyphens in compound modifiers that appear immediately before nouns, I ran Google Books searches for the words booke and boke for the period 1500–1800, and then, for each match, ran an internal search for instances of well, a constraint that I instituted in order to yield search results that were significant but not overwhelming in number.

My idea was that the occurrence of the obsolete forms boke and booke in the matching works would winnow out most modernized editions of old texts (which might include anachronistic punctuation as well as anachronistic orthography). This seemed to work fairly well: Most of the matches that came up for the period 1500–1600 were indeed original editions of these very old books. As noted, I limited my final search results to instances of compound modifiers that began with the word well.

Following is a selection of examples from books published before 1600, divided into two categories: books that did not use hyphens in the relevant way, and books that did.

Instances of nonhyphenated compound modifiers starting with ‘well’

Here are some excerpts from books published in the period 1533–1598 that do not include hyphens in compound modifiers that immediately precede a noun. From a translation of Desiderius Erasmus, A Playne and Godly Exposytion Or Declaration of the Commune Crede (1533/?):

Of the Pater noster I wyll make no longer processe at this tyme. There are commentaries and expositions vpon it made by ryght holy and well learned men redy and ethe to come by, and specially of sayncte Cyprian.

From Edwarde Halle, The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke ... (1550):

Whyle these thyngs were thus handeled and ordred in England, Henry Earle of Richemonde prepared an army of fyue thousand manlye Brytons, and fortie well furnyshed shyppes.

From Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster: Or Plaine and Perfite Way of Teachyng Children, to Understand, Write, and Speake the Latin Tong ... (1570):

God, that sitteth in heauen laugheth their choice to skorne, and rewardeth their liberalitie as it should: for he suffereth them, to haue, tame, and well ordered horse, but wilde and unfortunate Children: and therfore in the ende they finde more pleasure in their horse, than comforte in their children.


And as in portiacture and paintyng wise men chose not that workman, that can onelie make a fir hand, or a well facioned legge but soch one, as can furnishe vp fullie, all the fetures of of the whole body, of a man, woman and child : ...


As for example first in phrases, nimius et anumus, be two used words, yet homonimius animi, is an unused phrase. Vulgus, et amat, et fieri, be as common and well known wordes as may be in the Latin tong, yet id quod vulgo amat fieri, for solet fieri, is but a strange grekish kinde of writing.

From George Whetstone, The Rocke of Regard (1576):

His well meaning merits shal reape a reward,/ If that he forgets not the Rock of Regard.


then, graunt your wisdom to be such that you will not bestowe your able service, but where you see sufficient abilitie for your well deserving zeale to have deserved hyre.

From a printing license issued on January 5, 1581, reproduced in Three Collections of English Poetry, of the Latter Part of the Sixteenth Century:

An Heptameron of Civill Discourses unto the Christmas Exercises of sundry well covrted Gentlemen and Gentlewomen.

From Abraham Fraunce, The Arcadian Rhetorike: Or The Praecepts of Rhetorike made Plaine by Examples ... (1588):

In figures of words which altogether consist of sweete repetitions and dimensions, is chiefly conuersant that pleasant and delicate tuning of the voyce, which resembleth the consent and harmonie of some well ordred song: ...


The girle thy well chosen Mistres, perchaunce shall defend thee, when Basilius shal know, how thou hast sotted his minde with falsehood, and falsly fought the dishonour of his house.


Alas how painfull a thing it is to a diuided minde to make a well ioyned aunswere?

From Thomas Nashe, “The Foure Letters Confuted” (1592):

So iyt is that a good gowne and a well pruned paire of moustachios, having studied sixteen yeare to make thirteen ill English hexameters, came to the Universitie Court, regentium et non, to sue for a commission to carry two faces in a hoode: ...


Is it any treason to thy well tuned hammers to say they begat so renowmed a childe as musicke?

From Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia: The Strife of Love in a Dreame (1592):

For as to a large big and corpulaent body strong legges, and broad feete, are necessarie to beare and carry the same : so in a modulate and well composed building, to sustaine great weights, Naues are appointed, and for beautie, columns, Corinthies, and slender Ionices, are set vpon them.


This that which accuseth horrible couetousnes, the deuourer and consumer of all vertue, a stil byting and euerlasting greedie worme in his heart that is captiuated to well disposed wittes, the mortal enemy to good Architecturie, and the execrable Idol of this present world, so vnworthily worshipped, and damnably adored.

From Walter Raleigh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Gviana, with a Relation of the Great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spanyards call El Dorado) ... (1596):

Now touching the translation, it may please you sir, to be aduertised that it was first done into our language by some honest and well affected marchant of our nation, whose name by no meanes I could attain vnto, and that as it seemeth many yeeres ago.

From William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597):

Old Capulet. ... Such comfort as doo lusty youngmen feele,/ When well apparaild Aprill on the heele/ Of lumping winter treads, euen such delights/ Amongst fresh female buds shall you this night/ Inherit at my house, heare all, all see,/ And like her most, whose merit most shalbe.

From William Warner, Syrinx, Or a Seavenfold Historie (1597):

In this purpose therefore, accompanyed with an aged vncle of theirs called Orchamus & diuers Assirian gentlemen, whose friendes were also missing, in a well paneished [?] ship they launche from Niniuie : and having sailed through many seas, were now entred into that channel,whereas the riuer Arexes leauing the sea Capsium doth glide by y deserts of Scythia.

John Manwood, A Treatise and Discovrse of the Lawes of the Forrest (1598):

Which Treatise, (my good Lord,) I do heer present vnto your Honor, most humbly beseeching your good Lordship to accept of the same, as the fruits and labour of a well meaning mind.

From Iohn Hvighen Van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into Ye Easte & West Indies (1598):

The same Author in another Dialogue called Icaro-Menippus discourseth of the Cineke Mnippus, who being troubled with the same humor tooke vnto him the right wing of an Eagle, and the left wing of a Vulture, and hauing fastened them to his body with strong and sturdie thongs, mounted vp first to the Acropolis or Capitol of Athens, and then from Hymettus by the Gerania to Acro-Corinthus, and so to the Pholoë, and Erymanthus, & Taygetus, and at last to Olympus: where he grew somewhat more bragg and audacious, then before he was, and soared higher vpwards till he had reached the Moone, and then the Sunne, and from thence the habitation of Iupiter and the rest of the Gods: a sufficient flight (as he saith) for a well trussed Eagle to performe in a day.

From I.M., “A Health to the Gentlemanly Profession of Seruingman: or, The Seruingman’s Comfort” (1598), in William Hazlitt, Inedited Tracts: Illustrating the Manners, Opinions, and Occupations of Engloishmen During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1868):

If then without euery of these professions there can be no well gouerned Common wealth : (For if all men shoulde be Kinges, then cunning Coblers should loose their craft : yf all Coblers, Princes soueraintie would quickly surcease :)


But what is the difference betwixt the Remuneration and the Guerdon, may some say, we would fain know? otherwise we can not tell how you meane this well qualited Seruingmans desartes should be rewarded.

Instances of hyphenated compound modifiers starting with ‘well’

The earliest instance of a hyphenated compound modifier that my Google Books searches found is from 1597. It appears in a book that generally prefers the open (unhyphenated) punctuation style, however. From John Gerard, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597):

To the well affected Reader and peruser of this booke, St. Bredwell Phisition, greeting.


To the courteous and well-willing Readers.

In the main text, Gerard says things like “Vpright Dogs grasse growth in well dunged grounds and fertill fields.” and “The drie and pleasant well fauering seede is warme, and very conuenient to sundrie purposes.” and “they require a loose and well manured soile.” and “and therefore in well gouerned common wealthes it is carefully provided, that they [sweet cherries] should not be sold in in the markets in the plague time.” He does not hyphenate well as part of a compound modifier anywhere after his “To the courteous and well-willing Readers” introduction.

A more hyphen-friendly text appears in 1598, although the author in this case doesn’t hyphenate compound modifiers of the particular form “well xxxxxx noun.” From Skialethia: Or, A Shadow of Truth, in Certaine Epigrams and Satyres (1598):

With thee I haue been long time well acquainted,/ but those beyond-sea looks haue now disioynted/ Our well knit friendship, for whose sake I doubt/ Th’ art quite turn’d Dutch, or some outlandish lowt:


Thus doth opinion play the two-edg’d sword,/ And vulger iudgments both-hand plays afford;/ ... Let Players, Minstrels, silken Reuellers,/ Light minded as their parts, their aires, their fethers,/ But slaues t’Opinion, when the people shoute/ At a quaint iest, crosse-poynt, or well touch’d Lute:

The author of Skialethia is clearly at ease with hyphenating compound modifiers before nouns (as we see with “beyond-sea looks” and “both-hand plays”) but just as clearly doesn’t see any need to hyphenate such compounds when they start with well (as with “well knit friendship” and “well touch’d Lute”).

But John Florio, also publishing in 1598, wholeheartedly embraces the hyphenation of compound modifiers before nouns. From Florio, A World of Wordes: Or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598):

If looking into it [Florio’s book], it looke like the Sporades, or scattered Ilands, rather then one well-ioynted or close-ioyned bodie, or one coherent orbe, your honors know, an armie ranged in files is fitter for muster, then in the ring; and iewels are sooner found in seuerall boxes, then all in one bagge. If in these rankes the English out-number the Italian, congratulate the copie and varietie of our sweete-mother-toong, which under this most Excellent well-speaking Princesse or Ladie of the world in all languages is growne as farre beyond that of former times, as her most flourishing raigne for all happines is beyond the raignes of former Princes.

Florio also hyphenates phrases such as “a braine-babe Minerua,” “well-forwarde students,” “heauen-pearcing deuotion,” “blisse-full hands,” “little-less value,” “all Italian-English, or English-Italian students” “thrice-honored hands,” “Sea-faring men,” “tooth-lesse dog,” and “an unluckie hoarce-voist, dead-deuouring night-rauen or two.” That is, he uses hyphens not only to indicate compounds of multiple-word modifiers, but also to handle certain suffixed adjectives and compound nouns. In effect, Florio is the mirror opposite of John Gerard: when his dictionary omits a hyphen from a compound modifier immediately preceding a noun, it looks like an oversight, since he far more often includes the hyphen.


In the sample of books I checked, a hyphen first appears as punctuation in a compound modifier preceding a noun in Gerard's Herball, a book from 1597. The person most thoroughly dedicated to this use of hyphens during the period near the end of the sixteenth century appears to be John Florio. I would be even more inclined to cite him as the chief promoter of this form of punctuation if his popular and influential translation of Montaigne’s Essays (published in 1603) were not so inconsistent in its use of such punctuation. For example, the third volume of the Essays in Florio’s translation contains these conflicting treatments of well as part of a compound modifier. On the one hand:

“well-instituted Common-wealths,” “well-meaning people,” “well-meaning faith,” “well-meaning men” “well-speaking Art,” “well-grounded experience,” “well-composed countenance,” “well-written verses,” “well-meaning affection,” “well-ordered and coherent Army,” “well-meaning minds” “well-shapen and hansome-made shoe.”

But on the other hand:

“well composed minde,” “well sorted judgement,” “well ordered humour,” “well composed and peaceable marriage,” “well peopled country” “well composed understanding,” “well polished forme,” “well ordered, comely and complete limmes,” “well boding faces,” “well meaning way,” “well composed head.”

Most of the –ing forms get a hyphen and most of the –ed forms are left open, but I’m not sure how seriously to take this split in treatment as an indication that Florio drew a distinction between the two cases in terms of how the underlying rule of punctuation should apply. In any event, Florio did like the hyphen and did use it frequently, though by no means consistently.

The sample of early texts that I looked at is far from comprehensive, and my searches were limited to examples of compound modifiers beginning the word well, so I make no claim to have found the earliest instances of repeated use of the hyphen with compound modifiers in English texts. Nevertheless, within the strict limits of the research that I did do, I can say that such use of hyphens is present in at least one text published as far back as 1597, and in considerable number in a dictionary by John Florio published in 1598.

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    Bravo and thanks! That was a lot of work, and an ingenious means of sampling, for indeed compounds made up of well plus past participle are a significant species of phrases subject to hyphenation per the modern rule. Still to be settled are how typical this species is of the larger genus, and when the practice became so prevalent as to be a norm. – Brian Donovan Apr 5 '18 at 11:51

I don't consider what follows to be a complete answer, but I wanted to post a bit of information that I thought might be able to supplement Sven Yargs's post and perhaps provide some help to anyone who is willing to do some reading to get the bounty. (If nobody ends up doing that, I may update this post later after the bounty expires.)

The time of Gutenberg (whose work with printing occurred in the mid-1400s) seems a possible lower bound

The examples in Sven Yargs's answer establish that the practice of hyphenating compound adjectives in English texts arose no later than 1597.

It's not clear to me whether we can say that it arose no earlier than a certain date, but I'm beginning to suspect that the practice was at the very least uncommon before the introduction of printing.

Some of the references I have looked at mention Gutenberg as an important figure in the development of the hyphen as part of the inventory of modern punctuation marks. The article "July and the Hyphen", from The English Project, says

Justification is not at all easy with moveable, metal print. How, then, did Johannes Gutenberg get so fine an effect at the earliest moment of printing? The answer is that he used the hyphen. He used the hyphen perhaps more than any printer since, and he certainly used the hyphen more than any monk before. Something like a hyphen is to be found in Late Greek manuscripts. Curves were placed underneath the spaces between words that writers wanted treated as one. To describe this mark, Late Latin coined ‘hyphen’ from the Greek elements ‘hupo’--‘under’ and ‘hen’--‘one’.

Scripts that did not put spaces between words had no need of hyphens, but even when word spacing began to appear in monkish manuscripts, hyphens did not feature. Monks did not use hyphens to link words, and they did not use them to break words. Gutenberg was the man to do that. Since marks below the print line were not easy to reproduce, Gutenberg inserted a linking bar within the line. The modern hyphen was created.

Gutenberg’s hyphens are what we now call soft hyphens: they appear and disappear as the printer calls for them. [...] The hard hyphen (so called because it is not, or is not supposed to be, optional) makes one word out of two words.

Unfortunately, I can't see anything on that page that explicitly says whether Gutenberg used "hard hyphens", but to me it seems to imply that he did not.

The short "Origin and history" section of the Wikipedia article on the hyphen also mentions Gutenberg, although it gives a somewhat different description of his influence:

With the introduction of letter-spacing in the Middle Ages, the hyphen, still written beneath the text, reversed its meaning. Scribes used the mark to connect two words that had been incorrectly separated by a space. This era also saw the introduction of the marginal hyphen, for words broken across lines.

The modern format of the hyphen originated with Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, c. 1455 with the publication of his 42-line Bible. His tools did not allow for a subliminal hyphen, and he thus moved it to the middle of the line.

(This section cites Keith Houston's book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.)

The OUPblog post "The Lowly Hyphen: Reports of Its Death are Greatly Exaggerated", by Ben Zimmer, says

The hyphen has been with us since at least the time of Gutenberg, and over time certain general rules have developed, though none of the rules are hard and fast.

The ThoughtCo article "Don't Confuse the Hyphen With the Dash", by Richard Nordquist, says

In his book Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015), David Crystal describes the hyphen as "the most unpredictable of marks." Examining all the possible variations in the use of the hyphen, he says, would call for "an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story."

I have not yet read this book, but based on the title, it seems like it might contain relevant information. Nordquist cites the following extract from Crystal's book that discusses some historical changes (although unfortunatly, not the one that you are asking about):

"Here's [an example] of the way practices change. It's standard now to spell today, tomorrow, and tonight without a space or hyphen. But when the words first arrived in Old and Middle English they were seen as a combination of preposition to followed by a separate word (dæg, morwen, niht), so they were spaced. This usage was reinforced by Dr. Johnson, who listed them as to day etc. in his Dictionary (1755). But people began to think differently in the nineteenth century, and we see the big new dictionaries (such as Worcester's and Webster's) hyphenating the words. People began to get fed-up with this in the twentieth century. Henry Fowler came out against it in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926):

The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism.

He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony:

It is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by those who profess the mystery of printing.

'Lingering' was right. In fact we see instances of the hyphenated form right into the 1980s." (David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2015)

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    The book from 1550 cited in my answer includes many, many hyphens (actually, up-tilted equal signs); but as far as I can tell, they all appear at the ends of lines, where words are broken into parts instead of being presented complete on a single line. It seems likely that line-break hyphens were the first use of hyphens in English texts, and I would be surprised if that use of hyphens originated in English publishing. – Sven Yargs Apr 6 '18 at 5:04

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