Hyphen Usage: Punctuation Rules & Examples

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? That is the question!

Are you confused about how to use hyphens? The use of hyphens tends to bring up a lot of controversy from time to time. And it is possibly one of the most overused (or underused) punctuation marks. Some have gone to battle over whether or not to use a hyphen in an expression. While we don’t intend to get in the middle of a debate, there are some basic rules surrounding hyphen use. We’ve put together this quick guide in our Punctuation Rules series with a few examples on how to use hyphens.

So, first… what is a hyphen (-)? In essence, it’s a ‘joiner’ puncutation mark. It’s purpose is to join two or more words or parts of words that form a single entity. And it’s not interchangeable with other types of dashes, such as the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). We’ll cover those in another blog.

Hyphens have several uses, such as in hyphenated compound words, with compound modifiers (adjectives) as well as fractions, numbers, and age. It can be confusing to know when a hyphen is needed and when it’s not. So, here’s a quickie refresher on hyphen use.

1. Hyphenated Compounds vs. Open and Closed Compounds

According to common language standards, some compounds generally require hyphens: closed (one word) or open (two words). Here are a few examples…

Hyphenated                              Closed                         Open
hands-on                                  handheld                      hand in glove
weather-beaten                       weatherproof                weather vane
man-hour                                 manhunt                       man power
eye-opener                              lifestyle                         car wash
check-in                                  bookstore                      chief of staff

2. Hyphenating to Avoid Ambiguity

Some words may be hyphenated to allow easier readability or to avoid confusion.

re-form (not to be confused with reform)
re-creation (not to be confused with recreation)
fine-tooth comb (since we no one uses a fancy tooth comb)

3. Hyphenating Compound Modifiers Before a Noun

What is a compound modifier (also called an adjectival phrase or compound adjective)? They are two or more adjectives that precede a noun, that themselves form a complete adjective which describes the noun. Multiple adjectives preceding a noun usually need a hyphen to add clarity. However, if the same phrase follows the noun, the hyphen is not necessary.

a well-liked teacher                   her floor-length gown
The teacher is well liked.           Her gown is floor length.

Exception: Adverbs and words ending in –ly are not hyphenated before a noun.

greatly admired philanthropist
falsely accused witness
However: family-friendly restaurant (because neither family or friendly are adverbs)

4. Hyphens in Numbers and Fractions

Use hyphens when spelling compound numbers between 21 and 99, and fractions.

one-fourth (but, a half hour or half-hour intervals)
five hundred forty-two

5. Hyphens for Age, Color, and Direction

As with adjectival phrases (see number 3), these terms act as a single unit and will almost always need hyphenation.

a nine-year-old child (but, nine years old)
reddish-brown clay (but, the clay is reddish brown)
east-west highway (also, the highway runs east-west)

You may have noticed that I’ve used phrases like “may require” and “usually need.” This is not at all by accident or a means to avoid committing to any particular grammar rule. Truly, I’ve used this wording because, as we know, for every rule in the English language, there are always exceptions. So, when in doubt about hyphens (or anything else), consult your dictionary.

If you liked this, you might also like…

Everything You Need to Know About Apostrophes (and 2 more things)

Semicolons: How You Can Use Them & Look Smarter

Nikki Corbett Precise Be Smarter NowNikki Corbett is owner of Precise and
Be Smarter Now, wordsmith, writer,
editor, poet, and mom. She developed
a love of writing and the English language
early in life and has been writing stories
since she could pick up a pencil. She
holds degrees in Communications/
Journalism as well as Creative
Writing and Business Administration.
@ncwritermom @ncpoetess




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