Writing Tips: How To Use Hyphens
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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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)
Sometimes we connect separate, consecutive base words using hanging hyphens.
- The nineteenth- and twentieth-century author loved hanging hyphens.
- I work diligently in 20- to 30-minute intervals, after which my brain's fried.
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-
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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.
- 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!