Well Known vs. Well-Known

Postpositive Adjectives

Educated people like to kick around the expression “well known” to make people who don’t know about something feel inadequate in their presence. The trouble is, sometimes that expression is hyphenated, and sometimes it’s not.

Examples:

It’s a well-known fact that a barrel of oil is 42 gallons.

The fact that a barrel of oil is 42 gallons is well known.

So what’s the difference? In the second example the adjective is postpositive, which you’ve probably never heard of, so that will be the topic of today’s Tip.

You see, in English, adjectives normally come before the noun they modify. Except when they don’t, in which case they are “postpositive.”

Postpositive Examples:

Mission impossible

Proof positive

Members present

Reasons unfathomable

Time immemorial

Seats available

According to The Virtual Linguist:

“Postpositive adjectives are common in superlative constructions: the smallest quantity imaginable, the lowest price possible. They are also obligatory after indefinite pronouns: something good, no one interesting, somewhere exciting.” http://virtuallinguist.typepad.com/the_virtual_linguist/2010/02/postpositive-adjectives.html

Getting back to well-known, here is the Rule of Thumb:

If two words are being combined into an adjective that is placed in the usual position before the noun modified, then hyphenate the two words.

If those same two words are in a postpositive position, i.e., after the noun modified, then they are not hyphenated.

Examples:

We are considering in-situ combustion. (normal adjective position before noun, hyphenated)

We are considering combustion in situ. (postpositive, not hyphenated)

Well-made soap has no lye left over. (normal)

If there is no lye left over, the soap is well made. (postpositive)

Benjamin Franklin was a well-read man. (normal)

Benjamin Franklin was a man renowned for being well read. (postpositive)

That was a well-written report. (normal)

That report was well written. (postpositive)

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Profound Quote of the Day:

“A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.”

– Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher, 1795-1881

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