Hyphens between Words (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives
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Hyphens (Not Dashes) between Words

Those "dashes" between words are usually hyphens not dashes. This page explains when to use hyphens between words.
hyphens or dashes between words
The table below shows the four main dash-like characters ordered longest to shortest. Note that hyphens are shorter than dashes.
NamePunctuationHow To Get One
em dash Ctl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad)
minus sign minus (on the numeric pad)
en dash Ctl + minus (on the numeric pad)
hyphen- - (the key to the right of "0")

Read about using dashes.

When To Use a Hyphen

Hyphens have two main functions:

(1) To join words to show they are a single entity.
  • ice-axe
  • (This is one thing. The hyphen makes it clear that we're not talking about an axe made of ice.)
  • cooking-oil
  • (This is one thing. The hyphen makes it clear that oil is not cooking, i.e., getting hot)
  • free-range eggs
  • ("Free-range" is one adjective. The hyphen makes it clear that the eggs are not free. It also makes the text easier to read.)
  • twenty four-page leaflets
  • ("Four-page" is one adjective. The hyphen makes it clear that each leaflet has four pages. It also makes the text easier to read.)
"Ice-axe" and "cooking-oil" are classified as compound nouns (a noun consisting of more than one word). "Free-range" and "four-page" are called compound adjectives (an adjective consisting of more than one word).

(2) To act as a separator within a word for clarity or readability.
  • re-press
  • (The hyphen makes it clear that the meaning is "to press again" and not "repress" as in "to put down by force.")
  • re-establish
  • (This is easier to read than "reestablish.")
Read more about using hyphens.

More about Hyphens in Words

Examples of Using Hyphens between Words

Listed below are the main uses of hyphens:

(1) To form a compound noun.
  • Being married means I can eat ice-cream in bed. correct tick (Brad Pitt)
  • Pass me the plastic wire-fastener. correct tick
Read more about hyphens in compound nouns.

(2) To form a compound adjective.
  • It's only a three-seater aircraft. correct tick
  • It will be a never-to-be-forgotten experience. correct tick
  • They had a twenty-year-old cat. correct tick
Read more about hyphens in compound adjectives.

(3) To remove ambiguity with adjectives.
  • It is a heavy-metal detector. correct tick
  • (The hyphen makes it clear the device detects heavy metals as opposed to being a heavy device.)
  • It is a broken-heart pendant. correct tick
  • (The hyphen makes it clear the pendant is of a broken heart as opposed to being a broken pendant.)
(4) To remove ambiguity with adverbs.
  • He is the best-known actor. correct tick
  • (The hyphen makes it clear he is not the best actor of the known actors.)
  • There are more-important things in life. correct tick
  • (The hyphen makes it clear that more modifies important and not things.)
Note: Do not join an adverb to an adjective unless it eliminates ambiguity.
  • She is an extremely-happy dog. wrong cross
  • She is a very-happy dog. wrong cross
(5) To form an original compound verb.
  • The winner typically cheese-chases at 20 mph. correct tick
  • He needed to gate-vault the obstacle. correct tick
  • James spent the evening in hospital after he happy-slapped a bystander, who turned out to be a champion boxer. correct tick
(6) To form an original compound noun.
  • This issue is a real no-brainer. correct tick
(7) When writing numbers in full.
  • three hundred twenty-four correct tick
  • sixty-one correct tick
Note: Use a hyphen for all numbers between 21 and 99 (less those divisible by 10, e.g., 30, 40).

(8) When writing fractions in full.
  • four-fifths correct tick
  • two-thirds correct tick
(9) With some prefixes.
  • anti-aircraft correct tick
  • cooperate correct tick
Read the guidelines for using hyphens in prefixes.

Hyphens Are Not Meant to be Used for Ranges

Hyphens are not meant to be used for ranges (e.g., 12-14, 2001- 2010). Dashes are used for this purpose. However, given that the hyphen is so easy to find on a keyboard, hyphens have become acceptable for ranges. Only a very strict grammar pedant would pull you up for using hyphens. If this were to happen, you could make a good case for the pedant being out of date.

Read about dashes between numbers.

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