When to Use a Hyphen (-)

Summary

Use a hyphen to connect two words.

Examples
  • a five-day week
  • a happy-go-lucky girl
  • a long-lived tradition

Where or whether you place a hyphen in a phrase can affect its meaning.

Examples
  • Interns at this hospital work twenty-four-hour shifts every week.
  • Interns at this hospital work twenty four-hour shifts every week.

Hyphenate numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. Don’t hyphenate phrasal verbs (run across, turn up). Also, while some compound words contain hyphens, others don’t (short-lived but shortsighted). The best place to check whether a compound should be hyphenated is the dictionary.

What is a hyphen?

A hyphen is a punctuation mark used mainly to connect two words. It indicates that two or more words together mean one thing or that they together modify another word.

Examples
  • forty-two ducks
  • a drive-in theater
  • a five-minute interval
  • a right-handed batter
Tip

A hyphen (-) is shorter than both an en dash (–) and an em dash (—).

Using hyphens correctly can help avoid confusion. Inserting or omitting a hyphen can affect the meaning of a phrase or sentence.

Examples
  • a red-checked shirt
    a shirt with red checks
  • a red checked shirt
    a checked shirt that’s red
  • real-time data
    data obtained in real time
  • real time data
    real data about time
  • a man eating broccoli
    an adult male human eating broccoli
  • a man-eating broccoli
    broccoli that eats humans

For another example, consider this sentence in Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. Without the hyphens, it would be impossible to parse.

Three seventy-four-gun ships-of-the-line, Melville, Blenheim and Wellesley, led the way, and were followed by the forty-four-gun Druid and the twenty-four-gun Jupiter.

Hyphenated compounds

Compounds are terms made up of two or more words that carry a combined meaning. Hyphens are often used to connect these words and indicate that they together make the compound.

Examples
  • a strange mix-up
  • my long-suffering husband
  • a wall-mounted screen

Hyphens in compound modifiers

Sometimes, two or more words combine to carry a single meaning and describe a noun. Use hyphens to connect such words and indicate that they together serve as a compound adjective.

Examples
  • an up-to-date calendar
  • a well-lit corridor
  • an over-the-top performance
  • state-of-the-art technology
  • a nice-looking house
  • a half-baked idea
  • our long-forgotten home
  • a salmon-pink shirt
  • a purple-white sunrise
  • the million-dollar question
  • a 300-year-old vase
  • a 10-mile radius

However, if a compound term follows the noun instead of preceding it, hyphens are omitted, since it is already clear which word is being described.

Examples
  • a calendar that is up to date
  • a corridor that is well lit
  • a performance that was over the top
Caution

Don’t use a hyphen with adverbs ending in -ly. With such adverbs, the connection between the words is easy to follow even without a hyphen, and punctuation is thus considered unnecessary.

Examples
  • a carefully updated calendar
  • a brightly lit corridor
  • a beautifully choreographed performance

Multiple compound adjectives

When multiple compound adjectives are used, hyphenation can help distinguish the compound words from each other.

Examples
  • twentieth-century avant-garde films
  • thrill-seeking mountain-climbing enthusiasts
  • a six-week, five-play residency for stage actors

Keep in mind that hyphenating a compound adjective affects its meaning.

Examples
  • It was a small-town gathering.
    a gathering in a small town
  • It was a small town gathering.
    a town gathering that was small

Hyphens in compound nouns

Two words may together form a noun. The combined word is often hyphenated to eliminate confusion.

Examples
  • a spin-off of a popular daytime comedy
  • by-products of the petroleum industry
  • the fabric of space-time

Hyphens in compound verbs

Verbs can be made up of two words hyphenated to form a single verb.

Examples
  • to spring-clean the house
  • to oven-bake a pizza
  • to cross-check the numbers

Should phrasal verbs be hyphenated?

Phrasal verbs (two or more words, one of which is usually a preposition, acting as a single verb) are not hyphenated.

Examples
  • Anita should back up her computer.
  • Fill out the form completely before submitting it.
  • Poco pointed out all the grammatical mistakes in Lulu’s love letter.

Phrasal nouns and adjectives, however, are usually written hyphenated or as one word.

Examples
  • Is this the backup disk?
  • This document provides a walk-through of the process.
  • The rocket is ready for takeoff.
  • Tumkin watched a movie at the drive-in yesterday.

Are all compound terms hyphenated?

Not every compound term takes a hyphen. In fact, hyphens are going out of style, and many compounds are no longer hyphenated. Less rather than more punctuation is preferred, and hyphens are mainly used when not using them would result in grammatical vagueness and confusion.

Open compounds such as the following may once have taken but no longer take a hyphen.

Examples
  • real estate
  • life insurance
  • study table
  • wall hanging
  • nose ring
  • cat food

Two words can also be joined together without a hyphen to form a single word. Such combined words are called closed compounds.

Examples
  • bedroom
  • seaweed
  • doorbell
  • website
  • spaceship
  • backstroke
  • setup
  • nitpick
  • skateboard
  • kickboxing
  • lifestyle
  • rowboat
Tip

How do you know whether a term should be hyphenated? Check a standard dictionary, like Merriam-Webster. In general, American English favors a sparser hyphenation style than British English.

Hyphens after prefixes

Prefixes such as pre-, post-, non-, and co- are often followed by hyphens, especially when the word that follows begins with a vowel. The use of hyphens is more common in British than in American English.

Examples
  • pre-owned
  • pre-authorization
  • co-opt
  • co-brand
  • non-aromatic
  • non-native
  • post-absorptive
  • re-accuse
Tip

Many words are no longer hyphenated (e.g., preheat, nonessential). When in doubt, consult a standard dictionary (like Merriam-Webster).

With prefixes, whether or not a hyphen is used may even change the meaning of a word.

Examples
  • Anita can’t recollect what happened that day.
    recollect = can’t remember
  • Anita re-collected the oranges that had rolled out of the box.
    re-collect = collect again

Hyphens in numbers and fractions

Hyphenate numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine, including when they are part of larger numbers.

Examples
  • seventy-five
  • three thousand three hundred thirty-three
  • nineteen forty-seven

Also hyphenate fractions written as words.

Examples
  • a two-thirds majority
  • a one-half portion
  • two and three-quarters

Range shown by a hyphen

Hyphens without any surrounding spaces may be used to signify a range.

Examples
  • ages 25-30
  • 1997-2004
  • $100-$200
  • 10%-15%
  • 2-4 players
Note

An en dash (–), which is slightly longer than a hyphen, is generally preferred to connect numbers in formal writing. However, this is a matter of style rather than grammar, and while many style guides (such as the Chicago Manual of Style, APA Publication Manual, and MLA Handbook) recommend using an en dash to signify a range, the hyphen is still commonly used. In fact, style manuals like the AP Stylebook and AMA Manual of Style prescribe the use of hyphens to denote ranges.

Hyphens to signify breaks

In text, hyphens are used to indicate word breaks at the end of a line. This use is particularly common in newspapers and printed books, where the font is justified.

Hyphens also help break information up in other ways.

Examples
  • My name is Phoebe: p-h-o-e-b-e.
  • Here is my phone number: 208-443-4425

Usage guide

Use a hyphen to connect two words in a compound modifier to clarify meaning, but don’t use a hyphen after adverbs ending in -ly (a much-loved aunt but a deeply loved aunt). For whether to hyphenate compound verbs and compound nouns (back-check but backstab; co-occurrence but cooperation; fundraising but fund-raiser), check the dictionary. And remember not to use hyphens in phrasal verbs (pick up, try out, turn off).

Quick Quiz

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Did You Know?

Multiple adjectives are sometimes separated by commas, but not always.
Know more:Adjectives