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  • His degree was hard earned.

  • His degree was hardly earned.

Which is right?

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  • Close vote as a basic meaning question. dictionary.com/browse/hard-earned?s=t , dictionary.com/browse/hardly?s=t Commented May 26, 2016 at 4:32
  • @Nihilist_Frost: TBH, there are some meanings in the latter that sound an awful lot like the former. "with pain or difficulty.", #5? Commented May 26, 2016 at 4:34
  • @NathanTuggy Certainly wasn't in my idiomatic inventory, every day you learn new things. Commented May 26, 2016 at 4:51
  • @Nihilist_Frost: Yeah, in this case that dictionary entry would be misleading, I think. Commented May 26, 2016 at 5:01

2 Answers 2

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Both could be right in the right context, but they generally mean different things. In fact, they're almost opposite in their connotations.

"Hard-earned" (or "hard earned"; the hyphen isn't strictly necessary but is easier to read), means it was hard to earn the degree — the implication is that it's valuable because of the effort put into it, and that anyone else would probably have had to work hard too.

If you describe their degree as "hardly earned" (an adjectival phrase), it says nothing about the difficulty of earning the degree in general; it just means the person almost failed to earn the degree, probably because they didn't do a very good job working toward it. Similarly, if you say that they "hardly earned" the degree (a verb modified by an adverb), it means they probably did not get it because of the work they did at all, but for some other reason. (Bribes, nepotism, a terrible school, or whatever other possibilities.)

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They're both correct; hardly-earned is more antiquated but means the same thing as hard-earned. I disagree with the answer that states that the word 'hardly' in 'hardly-earned' means the same thing as it does in, for example, the phrase 'hardly ever'. Idiomatically, hardly-earned means the same thing as hard-earned.

However, if you choose to use the phrase 'hardly earned', especially without the hyphen, you ARE likely to confuse readers unfamiliar with the idiomatic phrase who will understand instead that the degree was nearly unearned.

Edit: I can't find an explicit source, but doubters: read the quotations linked here on the right. You decide, where does the context fit 'barely earned' and where does the context match 'hard-earned'? https://www.wordnik.com/words/hardly-earned

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    The examples in your link don't support this usage in contemporary English. Only one, a blog about comics, seems to be using hardly-earned synonymously with hard-earned in a modern setting; one actually uses "hard(ly)-earned"—including the parens—to make a joke playing on the other sense; two are broken links; and the rest are examples from the 1800s. In modern parlance, hardly(-)earned would virtually always be understood in the context of the old joke "are you working hard, or are you hardly working?"
    – 1006a
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 17:04

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