Grammar, Writing

The Ever-So-Helpful Hyphen

We mentioned hyphens in our last article, but they are so often used (and misused) that they deserve an article of their own.

What exactly is a hyphen? It is a short, horizontal punctuation mark like the one between these parentheses ( ). A hyphen has multiple uses in English writing. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Compound numbers

One way hyphens are used is to connect compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine. You also include a hyphen if you are writing a larger number that has a compound number within it, such as “six hundred and fifty-two” or “ninety-five million”.

Line Breaks

In the era when people used typewriters instead of word processors, hyphens were used at the end of a line when there wasn’t enough space for a whole word. You would type the first syllable, followed by a hyphen, and then finish the rest of the word on the next line. This practice has nearly become obsolete, but you may see older texts with these kinds of line breaks.


A prefix is a syllable that you can add to the beginning of a word to modify its meaning. Here are some prefixes that you will probably recognize:


Most commonly used words do not include a hyphen after a prefix. Note that the word “prefix” itself falls this camp, as do “unhappy”, “submarine”, “recycle”, “disagree”, and “triangle”.

However, hyphens are occasionally used between a prefix and the word it modifies. Some examples include “ex-husband”, “co-opt”, “mid-century”, and “non-dairy”.

How can you tell when to include a hyphen after a prefix? The grammatical rules are fuzzy, but if putting the prefix and the root word together results in a double vowel (ee, ii, uu, oo), then you should include a hyphen. For example, “de-escalate” and “anti-intellectual” are much easier to read than “deescalate” and “antiintellectual.”

You should also include a hyphen if the root word starts with a capital letter, as is the case with “anti-American” and “pro-European”.

Some words might confuse your reader or cause a misunderstanding if they are not hyphenated. Consider the following sentences:

I resent the email. (Is this person angry about something that was in the email, or did he/she simply send it again?)

I re-sent the email. (This is much easier to understand!)

Compound words

When two words are joined together to form a new word, this is called a compound word. Some common compound words include “snowman”, “somebody”, “playground”, “football”, “notebook”, “airport”, and “bedroom”.

The vast majority of compound words are not hyphenated. Here are some exceptions:


Hyphens are also used when a compound word is made up of more than two words: “merry-go-round”, “around-the-clock”, “brother-in-law”, “six-year-old”, “face-to-face”, “one-on-one”, “up-to-date”.

Compound adjectives

Ordinarily, a one-word adjective is used to describe a noun. Some examples are “a pretty baby”, “a busy office”, and “some hot water”. However, sometimes two or more words are joined together with a hyphen to create a compound adjective.

In each of the following sentences, the noun is written in boldface. The hyphenated word that comes before it is the compound adjective. Although a compound adjective can have many parts, it is considered to be one word.

The quick-thinking paramedic saved Grandpa’s life.

Robert’s tight-fitting jeans made him look ridiculous.

This is a working-class neighborhood.

I will provide a twice-weekly update on the sales figures.

That bar is at the top of my never-ever-go-there list.

As you can see from that last sentence, you can get really creative with compound adjectives! You may have noticed that the title of this article also includes a compound adjective.

A brief history lesson

Did you know that “teenager” used to be written as “teen-ager” and “baseball” was once “base-ball”? As these words became more familiar, they gradually lost their hyphens. We are seeing this now with certain words related to technology and computers. Some people still use “e-mail” and “anti-virus”, but more often these words are written as “email” and “antivirus”, without a hyphen.

Are you still unsure if you are using hyphens correctly? Click the blue box below (or click here if you are working on a longer document) and one of our TextRanch editors will check your writing.

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2 Replies to The Ever-So-Helpful Hyphen

  1. I found the material on the dash very enlightening. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is that I think you should lead into a sequel with something like “Please see our article on how to distinguish between a hyphen and a dash.”

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