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Writing Tips: How to Use Hyphens

Updated on October 9, 2018
Faceless39 profile image

I'm a dental hygienist, pyrography artist, avid gardener, writer, vegetarian, world traveler, and many other things!

Etymology: 1620s, from L.L. hyphen , from Gk. hyphen "mark joining two syllables or words," probably indicating how they were to be sung, noun use of an adverb meaning "together, in one," lit. "under one," from hypo "under" (see sub-) + hen , neuter of heis "one."

Hyphens seem to confuse just about everyone, but this doesn't need to be the case. They're highly useful, easy to understand, and are generally just never explained in a way that anyone finds memorable or useful.

Don't confuse a hyphen (-) with an en dash (–) or em dash (—). While dashes are used to connect two parts of an entire sentence, hyphens connect two or more words.

Hyphens are one of my favorite and most-loved punctuation marks. Nothing can do what they can: they completely change the context and meaning of what's being said. They're the Transformers of grammar, and I love them. Yes; love!

I've probably raved enough about them here. It's time to move on so I can rave about them elsewhere. Let's go!

Grammar Transformers:  "More Than Meets the Eye!"
Grammar Transformers: "More Than Meets the Eye!" | Source

Joining ("Compound Modifiers")

Use a hyphen to join two or more words that together act as a single adjective. The hyphen is only used when the adjectives come before the thing they're describing (noun.) If the adjectives come after the thing they're describing, no hyphen is used.

Correct:

  • Hyphens are a one-way street to total awesomeness!
  • The anal-retentive grammar instructor wanted us to learn about hyphens.
  • The 10-year-old boy was a better speller than his teacher.

Incorrect:

  • The street to total awesomeness only went one-way.
  • The grammar instructor who wanted us to learn about hyphens was anal-retentive.
  • The boy was 10-years-old and was a better speller than his teacher.

Corrections:

  • The street to total awesomeness only went one way.
  • The grammar instructor who wanted us to learn about hyphens was anal retentive.
  • The boy was 10 years old and was a better speller than his teacher.

Only when it precedes what it's describing.  This answer sounds a little anal retentive!
Only when it precedes what it's describing. This answer sounds a little anal retentive!

Tricks of the Trade

One easy way to know whether or not to use a hyphen is to rearrange the sentence. Take one of the descriptive words out; if the sentence still makes sense, you don't need a hyphen. Similarly, if the sentence still makes sense when you switch the two adjectives, don't use a hyphen.

Examples:

  • The anal-retentive author dreamed about grammar.
  • The (anal) author dreamed about grammar.
  • The (retentive) author dreamed about grammar.
  • The (retentive-anal) author dreamed about grammar.

Clearly, the above sentences only make sense in the first example where 1) a hyphen is used, and 2) the descriptive words are in the right order!

Prefixes and Suffixes

Always use a hyphen with the prefixes ex-, self-, and all-, and between a prefix and capitalized word.

Examples:

  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Mid-July
  • Pre-Columbian
  • Self-assured
  • All-inclusive

Source

Convention

Sometimes hyphens are used by convention rather than for strictly grammatical reasons. This designates a connection between the words and includes double-barreled last names.

Examples:

  • Tattle-tale
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Jennifer Love-Hewitt


Hyphens are also used when two or more of the same letter would otherwise be rammed together. Using a hyphen makes it easier to read and understand.

  • Shell-like (as opposed to shelllike)
  • Semi-independent (as opposed to semiindependent)
  • Short-term (as opposed to shortterm)
  • Co-op (as opposed to coop)

The Brits love hyphens even more than I do.  Holy crumpets!
The Brits love hyphens even more than I do. Holy crumpets! | Source
Source

Hanging Hyphen

Sometimes we connect separate, consecutive base words using hanging hyphens.

Examples:

  • The nineteenth- and twentieth-century author loved hanging hyphens.
  • I work diligently in 20- to 30-minute intervals, after which my brain's fried.


Line Wrapping

Hyphens are used to allow for easier line wrapping, especially in printed works like books and newspapers. The word is divided at the nearest break point between syllables.

Our forefathers signed the Consti-
tution of the United States of Amer-

ica.

Source

Confusion

Sometimes combinations of words can be confusing. To avoid confusion we add a hyphen. The hyphenated words mean something completely different from the non-hyphenated words.

Examples:

  • Re-sign (as opposed to resign)
  • Re-covered (as opposed to recovered)
  • Re-creation (as opposed to recreation)


Numbers and Fractions

All compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine must be spelled using a hyphen. All spelled-out fractions also need a hyphen.

  • The students got ninety-nine percent on their hyphen quiz.
  • Two-thirds of the students aced the grammar exam! Woot!

© 2011 Kate P

Comments

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    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      16 months ago from Texas

      How awesome, I will never think about hyphens the same way again. I usually use hyphens when it a word does not look right without one. I think I am falling in love with hyphens.

      Blessings my friend.

    • PatriciaTL profile image

      PatriciaTL 

      6 years ago from Lehigh Valley

      Very nicely done.... excellent examples!

    • profile image

      Robin 

      6 years ago

      This is a wonderfully-written hub.This hub was wonderfully written. Have I earned my ninety-second widget? I wish all grammar lessons were this informative and fun. Thanks!

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      I appreciate your comments; thank you! :)

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 

      6 years ago from United States

      Interesting post..Thanks

    • ronhi profile image

      ronhi 

      6 years ago from Kenya

      aha! here is the help i need. Thanks again faceless. At this rate, i will be an expert in English in no time. Voted up (hope i didn't break any punctuation rules :))

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Another great Hub on, of all things, punctuation! I always enjoy your Hubs and learn something new every time. Well-done.

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thanks so much for the great feedback! It's not often people like reading about grammar rules. :)

      And I have written a hub on semicolon use. You can find all my other grammar articles here: https://hubpages.com/@faceless39 :)

    • profile image

      Awesome! 

      7 years ago

      Great hub - now do one on semi-colons.

    • Astra Nomik profile image

      Cathy Nerujen 

      7 years ago from Edge of Reality and Known Space

      This is not just a celebration of my favorite punctuation mark, (as I use it in my poems a lot) - but it is a definitive Hub Page on the Hyphen. I enjoyed reading this immensely. Thank you for a great read, and can I say thanks for the nice comments on my Hubs too.

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