Hyphenation is used in English in order to clear any confusion in a phrase or sentence. However, hyphens should not be used with '-ly' adverbs or 'very', so: "The finely tuned engine is roaring."

My question is: What if instead of: (-ly adverb + past participle) formula we have a (noun+adverb) formula? For example, "That noise was ear piercingly loud!" Should we use a hyphen between 'ear' and 'piercingly'? My grammatical sense tells me so because 'noun+adverb' is a very weird sight to me.

Further, would you extend the same rule of non-hyphenation for "very" to the adverb "so"? Meaning, would you write the following phrase with a hyphen or not, "The not so/(very) silent night?"

I'm very conflicted about adding hyphens or not. A detailed answer is very much appreciated.

  • 1
    I suspect this post will be downvoted because it tries to address 3 different topics. You should have submitted separate questions. To address the first one - I would use hyphens in both 'ear-piercingly' and 'not-so-silent'. Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 9:05
  • Alright, thank you. I'll edit my post now. Do you mind clarifying your answers more?
    – J.Kar
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 9:06
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    I think your question is fine as it is
    – NibblyPig
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 9:12
  • I'm not aware of a formal rule; my instinct tells me that hyphens are needed in those phrases. Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 9:29
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    It probably helps to give a complete sentence as an example, rather than something like "The not so/(very) silent night?" which isn't very clear. Generally a hyphen is unnecessary with "so" or "not so" but in specific examples, it may change. You may be looking for a general rule but it's rare that you can say something is the case 100% of the time.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 12:57

2 Answers 2


According to grammarbook.com

Rule 1. Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.

Examples: an off-campus apartment state-of-the-art design

When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen is usually not necessary.

Example: The apartment is off campus.

However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. Double-check with a dictionary or online.

Example: The design is state-of-the-art.

Therefore one should hyphenate it.


The compound premodifier-of-adjective ear-piercingly is obviously formed from the compound adjective ear-piercing, which Collins gives as mandatorily hyphenated (do not confuse with the practice ear piercing).

Most dictionaries demand the hyphen in earth-shattering (though both hyphenated and open compound forms are commonly used predicatively on the internet, for example the diagnosis was earth shattering / earth-shattering).

Dictionary.com allows earthshaking as well as earth-shaking, and heartwarming / heart-warming is also optionally solid.

So there appears to be no convenient rule to follow here. Obviously, some solid forms will be resisted, and some open forms don't seem too natural; I'd stick with 'mind-blowing / mind-blowingly [spectacular]'. Preferred forms are often found in dictionaries, though rarer compounds will not be.


[In response to the now-deleted query about multiply hyphenated novel premodifiers]:

The example

  • a not-very-silent night

is unusual, tongue-in-cheek, quirky even; the acceptability of the hyphens is a secondary issue when it comes to acceptability. I'd use these expressions (complete with hyphens) in informal registers; they're rare, so no really authoritative rules. But using hyphens to show what the multi-word lexemes actually comprise seems logical (and less messy and less ambiguous than using square brackets, a [not very silent] night, say).

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