Using the Hyphen

The hyphen (-) is a small mark or bar that can be used in several different ways, but always demonstrates that what it is attached to does not make up a word by itself. One important rule is that there are no white spaces on both ends of the hyphen.

Using the hyphen to write compound words

The most common use of the hyphen is to create compound words – that is, a word that is made up of two or more words. For example:

anti-aircraft, one-way street, well-known singer, sixty-eight, back-to-back

The hyphen prevents any confusion and makes the new compound word clearer and easier to read. However, you should not hyphenate to join the words after a noun. For example:

The street only went one way.
The lead singer was well known.

The rules for using the hyphen to create compound words are not that strict, and even different dictionaries will take different approaches, but the following principles should be apply:

1. Try to be clear
2. Only the hyphen when necessary
3. Try to follow established usage

The hyphen and word splitting

While there should never be white spaces on both ends of a hyphen, there are times when a white space can be placed on one end of a hyphen: when a word is split up at the end of a line. For example:

Major Daniels had done it, he had become the first person ever to reach inter-stellar space.

This type of word splitting is far from ideal, but if it must be done, then generally try to cut the word into equal sizes.

Double-barrelled names

The hyphen is often used to write ‘double-barrelled’ names. For example:

Courteney Cox-Arquette, Jean-Claude van Dam, Catherone Zeta-Jones

But some people prefer their names to be written without the hyphen, such as:

Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, David Lloyd George, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

The preference of the individual should be taken into account and used.

Hyphenating compound modifiers

Hyphenating is very important when using compound modifiers. A compound modifier is a compound word (a word made up of two or more words joined together) that modifies a noun. For example:

He was wearing a light-blue scarf.
He was wearing a light blue scarf. 

Without the hyphen, then the reader might think that the scarf itself weighed less than normal. Hyphenation is very important when using a compound word to modify a noun.

Hyphenating prefixes

One especially interesting area is the hyphenating of prefixes. A prefix is something added before the root of a word. For example, unhappy; un is the prefix and happy is the word. You can use the hyphen to avoid confusion with prefixes. For example:

She managed to recover her cushion.
She managed to re-cover her cushion.

Hyphenating the prefix changes the meaning of the sentence. The first example suggests that someone has managed to recover her missing cushion, while the second example clarifies that she has actually managed to get a new cover on her cushion.

You should always hyphenate prefixes when either a capital letter or number follows:

post-Napoleonic Europe
pre-1960s popular music

You should also hyphenate if the prefix is added to a word that already contains a hyphen:

Their post-globe-trotting days

Finally, if the hyphen is added to a compound word that contains a white space then the existing white space should also be replaced with a hyphen:

He was a leader of the anti-cold-war movement


5 thoughts on “Using the Hyphen

  1. You left out an important type of word splitting; call it, perhaps, “suspended affixation”:

    We sell both right- and left-handed scissors.
    Do you need four-, eight-, or twelve-foot boards?

    Note that in the second example it’s not a space but a comma on the “broken-off” end of the hyphens.

    Mark Mandel
    Dr. Whom
    Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

    P.S.: You probably want to fix “Only the the hyphen when necessary”
    P.P.S.: And “inters-
    tellar”, which should be split between the prefix “inter-” and the root “stell-“.

  2. may I ask a question as to what is correct from the two: (1) Records Check (2) Records-check. Do they have different meanings or are they just the same?

    • I’m not 100% percent certain that I’m clear on exactly what you’re asking, but I’ll give it a shot. The two are not the same.

      “Records check” is an activity (a noun). It is the checking of records. Example: I will conduct the records check tomorrow.

      “Records-check” functions an adjective, that is, it describes some other word in the sentence (a noun). Example: I’m unfamiliar with the records-check procedure.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Do you think “visually-appealing” can take a hyphen. I saw it on one webpage and it looked good but it seems incorrect to me.


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