The Proper Use of Hyphens


This short tutorial will detail the proper use of hyphens. There are simple guidelines to determine when and how to use hyphens properly.

You’re a bit confused about how to use hyphens? Don’t feel lonely; so many people just don’t quite know when or how to use those irksome little things. To be honest, there are few hard-and-fast rules for their use. However, in the next few minutes, we’ll walk you through the basics of proper hyphen usage so the next time you write a paper, a blog post, or even a Facebook post or tweet, you’ll know you’re using hyphens correctly!

A hyphen is used to connect words that have some degree of relationship to each other; most often, two words describing a noun. This is called a compound adjective. Two words, not necessarily adjectives on their own, are combined to create an adjective. New-found riches, rum-soaked cake, rheumy-eyed old man, heir-apparent to the throne. But did you know that you can also hyphenate verbs? This usually occurs when a writer more or less creates a new verb for more descriptive or colorful language:

The Proper Use of Hyphens

The two boys Go-Pro’d their entire parachute jump from the plane.

  • She chain-stitched the border of her afghan.
  • I’m house-sitting for the neighbors this week.
  • He just steam-rolled right over the committee’s objections.

Unusual compound nouns and adjectives are usually hyphenated, to avoid confusion. Do-gooder, off-putting, prune-lipped, no-brainer.

Always hyphenate fractions that are spelled out: five-eighths. Also, all numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine need hyphenation as well. Most style guides prefer that ages are hyphenated as well. Five-year-old son, ninety-year-old woman.

A good rule of thumb for hyphen use other than in fractions, numbers, or ages, is that if the hyphen clears up any potential confusion, you should use it. If the meaning is clear without a hyphen, its use is optional:

  • He’s having egg salad sandwiches for lunch. (There’s no confusion here; “egg-salad” is unnecessary.)
  • She carefully re-formed the clay statue. (Here, “re-formed” makes it clear that she is reshaping the clay.)
  • They are small-town celebrities. (There is a difference between being a small town celebrity and a small-town celebrity.)

There are other, less common uses of hyphens. However, this short guide has covered those most writers should know. When in doubt, refer to your style guide of choice for its recommended use of hyphens in various situations.

Originally posted 5/18/2015 and happily updated 10/26/2017. Thanks for reading!

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