Learn English Grammar

Learn English Punctuation

The Hyphen Made as Simple as Possible

by Charlotte Beckham, proofreading and editing professional at Cambridge Proofreading Ltd.

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The use of hyphens ‘-‘(not to be confused with dashes) is a contentious topic. There are no definitive rules for its usage and the various style guides and international norms vary.

As with any other punctuation mark, it should be used consistently in order to make writing easier to read and comprehend.

Let’s review some of the typical situations in which you may consider using a hyphen.

Basic usage

A hyphen is used between words without spacing to add clarity.

‘Up-to-date’ (correct)
‘Up - to - date’ (incorrect)

Suspended hyphens

These are often used to separate compound words and are presented with a gap before the conjunction:

‘Anti- and pro-abortion demonstrators were gathered in the square.’

Compound modifiers

A hyphen is used when two or more words and their conjunctions are linked together to modify another word, particularly with nouns:

‘Five-year-old daughter’ (More on this)

Be aware that adverb compounds (e.g. ‘very’ and words ending in ‘ly’) are usually not hyphenated:

‘Slowly walking’

Prefixes

You have to take care when deciding whether to hyphenate words beginning with prefixes such as ‘non’, ‘pre’ and ‘anti’, etc.

Generally speaking, word combinations that are commonly used, such as ‘disregard’ and ‘antibacterial’ are presented as a single word. More esoteric combinations, such as words that you might have made up (‘anti-potato’) will usually require a hyphen.

Double-vowel compounds, such as ‘anti-emetic’, are typically hyphenated to aid readability and pronunciation. The most reliable way to decide is to refer to a reputable and recently published dictionary.

Suffixes

Suffixes are slightly easier to understand:

  • Hyphenate to prevent double consonants (e.g. ‘super-reaction’)
  • Hyphenate after a proper noun (e.g. ‘Cambridge-wide’).

Numbers

If your writing style prescribes spelling figures, you should use hyphens in certain instances. This means that numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine (21-99) should be hyphenated. This also applies to fractions.

Logical purposes

It is very important to use hyphens when there is ambiguity in a sentence. This can apply to words that have different meanings, such as ‘re-creation’ and ‘recreation’.

Proper nouns

Use a hyphen to link proper nouns (e.g. names and places):

‘Anglo-Saxon’
‘Linkwitz-Riley filter’

Margins

With handwritten text, authors traditionally used a hyphen to link broken words when they ran out of space at the page margins. However, with word processors being able to automatically fit text within the page, this practice is becoming less relevant.

Some newspapers and magazines may break words with hyphens to maximise the amount of information printed on to a limited space.

Useful Tips

  • Users of Microsoft Word may wish to check the Autocorrect options by going to File > Tools > Proofing. This will give you control over automatic ‘corrections’ to your writing. ¬†Alternatively, you can cancel the changes on-the-fly by pressing Ctrl + z
  • Try to use common sense when making a decision. Does a compound phrase make sense if you were to take away a modifier?
  • Get a good dictionary and style manual and use them.

More on punctuation
More English Grammar