How to Hyphenate Compound Verbs and Adverbs
Compound verbs (i.e. compound words functioning as a single verb) usually appear as two or more words (e.g. ‘was destroyed’, ‘was looking’ and ‘will be waiting’) and are thus not hyphenated. Compound adverbs (i.e. two words modifying verbs), on the other hand, usually appear as one word. In both instances, there are exceptions, and you are advised to refer to the appropriate style guide and dictionary for the situation in which you are writing.
The most commonly used reference books in the Australian university setting are the Style Manual and Macquarie Dictionary; however, your department, or your field more broadly, may have its own preferences regarding hyphenation. Whichever style guide and dictionary you select as the most appropriate for your needs, it is important that you apply it consistently.
There are some rules that are generally true for hyphenation in any style guide, dictionary and field. We explain these in relation to the various types of compound verbs and compound adverbs below. For verbs and adverbs in compound nouns (e.g. verb + adverb compound nouns), see ‘How to Hyphenate a Compound Noun’. The principles can be extended to new words not yet listed in dictionaries.
If you would like to watch an introductory video on compound words prior to reading this article, you can access one on our YouTube channel.
Adjective + Noun and Noun + Verb
Compound verbs comprised of an adjective and a noun, or a noun and a verb, are usually hyphenated: to cold-shoulder, to gift-wrap, to baby-sit.
My mother’s anniversary is fast approaching and I intend to gift-wrap her present.
The watch was beautifully gift-wrapped by the shop person, at no extra charge.
Adverb + Verb
Compound verbs formed by an adverb and a verb are usually presented as one word (i.e. not hyphenated): to overreact, to waterproof, to highlight.
I think the committee may overreact once the media highlight the more controversial aspects of the proposal.
A compound adverb is formed by an adverb being paired with a noun, adjective or verb. Compound adverbs are used to modify a verb, adjective or even another adverb.
Compound adverbs may be written as one word (thereafter, sometimes), two words (early on, very well) or with a hyphen (self-consciously, in-house).
We thereafter always looked before crossing the road.
It was decided early on to conserve water.
He was cute, in a self-conscious way.