Adverbs: comparing adverbs and when to hyphenate

Comparing adverbs

In the same way that we can compare adjectives, we can compare adverbs.

When we have two actions being compared, we use the comparative form of the adverb. When three or more actions are compared, we use the superlative form of the adverb.

For short (one-syllable) adverbs – which tend to the irregular ones that don’t end in –ly — we add –er to make the comparative form and -est to make the superlative form.

  • Athletes run fast (fast is an adverb here, explaining how athletes run: no comparison in this sentence).
  • Olympic athletes run faster than other athletes (comparative form).
  • Usain Bolt has run fastest of anyone, ever. (superlative form).

As most adverbs are more than one syllable, their comparative and superlative forms are created in a different way: for comparatives, we add the word more and for superlatives we add the word most.

  • The puppy waited patiently (standard form of adverb).
  • The puppy waited more patiently than it did the day before (comparative form).
  • The puppy waited most patiently of all the dogs I was training (superlative form).

Irregular comparisions: bad, well and less

Consider this sentence:

  • I made a badly considered move.

Here, badly is an adverb describing the adjective (which is a participle used as an adjective, or gerundive) considered.

Badly has its own special, or irregular, comparative and superlative forms: we use worse and worst instead of more badly and most badly.

  • I made a worse-considered move than the one before.
  • I made my worst-considered move for the whole game.

Similarly, well has special, or irregular, forms for comparions: better and best (the same as the comparative and superlative forms of good, which is the equivalent adjective).

  • I made a well-considered move.
  • I made a better-considered move than the one before.
  • I made my best-considered move for the whole game.

Less and least are also used for comparing adverbs, as comparative and superlative forms to showing a decrease or reduction in an activity.

  • I lose at chess often (often is an adverb, describing lose).
  • I lose at chess less often than I used to (comparative form).
  • I lose at chess least often when I take the time to consider my moves (superlative form).

Note that this usage is different from the use of less, lesser and least when comparing adjectives. Lesser is not used to make comparative forms of adverbs.

Hyphenation of adverbs

The simple rule is that when an adverb ends in -ly, it is never hyphenated to the word that follows (whether the adverb is modifying a verb, an adjective or another adverb).

The Australian government Style Manual notes two exceptions to this rule: fully-fledged and fully-fashioned. (Why those two? Well, fully-fledged has a long history as a compound, so perhaps it can almost be seen as one word. I have to admit, fully-fashioned has me fully beat.)

But Australia’s favourite dictionary, the Macquarie, has long hyphenated many -ly adverbs to the words they modify in common pairings. As far back as 2006, the Encylopedic edition contained visually-impaired, while even offering newly-married as an example of a hyphenated compound.

What should you do when the country’s preferred style guide and preferred dictionary contradict each other? You have to make your own decision as to which one you follow. Choose one, and then be consistent: that’s all you can do. For the record, my preference is have adverb compounds unhyphenated, so I agree with the Style Manual.

Hyphenation of comparative and superlative adverbial compounds

Things get even murkier when we come to comparative and superlative compounds. Again, there’s a general rule — and grey areas.

The general rule is that more and most should not be connected with hyphens unless they are ambiguous.

  • We need more educated workers.

Does this mean we need more workers with the same level of education as we currently have, or could it mean we need workers with more education? Without the hyphen, the meaning is that we need more workers with the same level of education; to be clear if we think we need workers who have more education, we need to say We need more-educated workers.

There are some references, such as Pam Peters’ excellent The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, which say that hyphens should not be used with adverbs unless there is ambiguity. Peters gives as an example best known examples – which is completely opposite to the advice given by the Australian Style Manual, which says to hyphenate compound adjectives that contain participles and uses well-known book as an example.

What should we do? I prefer to use hyphens after well, better and best when they modify a gerundive (so I agree with the Style Manual rather than Pam Peters). It is always hard to know if a reader will find your meaning ambiguous, and I prefer to remove the possibility.

  • I made a better-considered move

The hyphen makes it clear that it is the consideration that is better, not the move. It is quite possible that I can better consider a move  – and it will still end up being a bad move!

  • I made a better considered move.

To me, this example leaves it unclear whether it is the move or the considering that is better.

Pam Peters says:

Writers should avoid having their meaning hang on a hyphen.

I believe that we should also avoid having meaning hang on the lack of a hyphen. What you decide to do about hyphens and adverbs is up to you — but I hope this blog helps you to make a better-considered decision and a better decision.

Hyphenation of adverbs is one of those grey areas in grammar

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Images: Usain Bolt © Grosremy |; puppy by Lawrence Makoona and chess game by Mesh, both from Unsplash; shades of grey is Photo 13353182 / Fog © Deviney |

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