Using HyphensHyphens have six uses:
(1) To join the words in a compound adjective.
- six-foot table
- silver-service waitress
- to ice-skate
- to spot-check
- two-, three-, and four-bedroom houses
- two- or three-fold
More about Using HyphensA hyphen is a punctuation mark used as a joiner. A hyphen is typically used to join the separate parts of a compound word to make it clear that it's one entity. (A compound word is a word made up of more than one word.)
(1) Using Hyphens in Compound Adjectives
- free-range eggs
- A eight-seater taxi
- A far-too-chatty individual
- six-foot table
- My single-minded aim is to give existence to fantasy. (American-Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg)
- There's a difference between a free market and free-for-all market. (Senator Bob Menendez)
Read more about hyphens in compound adjectives.
Read about alternatives to hyphens in compound adjectives.
(2) Using Hyphens in Compound Nouns
- It needs a paper-clip to hold the ticket in place.
- I am looking after a two-year-old.
- History is full of inevitable front-runners who were inevitable until they weren't. (Politician Martin O'Malley)
- Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law. (French writer Voltaire)
- hot dog
Read more about hyphens in compound nouns
Read more about forming the plurals of compound nouns.
(3) Using Hyphens in Prefixes
Read more about hyphens in prefixes.
(4) Using Hyphens in Compound VerbsA hyphen can be used to join the words in a compound verb, especially verbs formed from two nouns.
- To gift-wrap
- To ice-skate
- I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence. (Irish playwright Brendan Behan).
- She will eyebrow-beat him into submission.
- He cold-shouldered me when I was fist-pumping his team mates.
- Never give in, and never give up. (American politician Hubert Humphrey) (These are phrasal verbs. They are correct without hyphens.)
(5) Using Hyphens in Fractions and Numbers Written in FullHyphens are used in fractions written out in full.
- two hundred thirty-four
- three thousand five hundred sixty-seven
Read more about writing numbers in full.
(6) Using Hyphens with List Items Sharing a Common Second ElementA hyphen can be used before a common second element in all but the last word in the list.
- You can buy a two-, five- or seven-seater version of this car.
- If our monarchy can show democracy that leads to a two-, three-, four-party system (left, right and centre), then the Brotherhood will no longer be a contender. (Abdullah II of Jordan)
- I don't care if you're Aqua-, Bat- or Superman, Mr Clayderman. You're still late.
- It will increase two- or threefold.
Why Should I Care about Hyphens?A hyphen is typically used to show that the joined words are a single entity (e.g., a single adjective or a single noun). This has the following three benefits:
(1) It makes your text easier to read.
(2) It removes the possibility for ambiguity.
(3) It showcases your writing skills a little.
Here are five noteworthy points related to hyphens.
(Point 1) Use a hyphen if the unhyphenated version of a compound adjective would be ambiguous.British readers will expect you to use hyphens with compound adjectives, but, in the US, readers are more lenient. In fact, it is common to see compound adjectives without hyphens in both regions, especially with well-established terms that are unlikely to make a reader stall (e.g., "ice cream stall," "twentieth century building"). So, it is not a serious error to omit a hyphen from a compound adjective. That said though, when the unhyphenated version of a compound adjective is ambiguous, you must use a hyphen to link its words.
- a small business grant (This is ambiguous. Does this mean a small grant for business purposes or a grant for a small business?)
- a small-business grant (With the hyphen, it is clear that we're talking about a grant for a small business. It could be a large grant.)
- I have a concealed weapons permit. (This is ambiguous. Does this mean a permit for concealed weapons or a permit hidden from view?)
- I have a concealed-weapons permit. (With the hyphen, it is clear we're talking about a permit for concealed weapons.)
- a heavy water reactor (This is ambiguous. Is this a heavy reactor for use with water or a heavy-water reactor?) (Note: "heavy water" is deuterium oxide.)
- a heavy-water reactor (The hyphen makes it clear this is a deuterium-oxide reactor.)
(Point 2) Don't use hyphens with adverbs that end "-ly."When using an adverb to modify an adjective (e.g., "perfectly formed ring"), some writers feel the need to use a hyphen (e.g., "perfectly-formed ring"). With adverbs ending "-ly" (and there are lots) and the word "very," that's a mistake.
- It is a wonderfully-decorated tree.
- Paula is a very-talented student.
- It's a friendly-looking, family-run business. ("Friendly" and "family" are not adverbs.)
- Lee is the best-known player on the pitch. (Here, Lee is known better than any other player. "Best" is an adverb.)
- Lee is the best known player on the pitch. (Few would differentiate this from the hyphenated version, but it could feasibly mean that Lee is the best of all the known players, in which case "best" would be an adjective. If you substitute known with "chubby," it will highlight "best" as an adjective.)
- We're looking at a well-developed fetus. (This means the fetus is significantly past the embryonic state.)
- We're looking at a well developed fetus. (This could mean the same as above or possibly a healthy and developed fetus.)
(Point 3) When using an expression like "three-and-a-half," don't join your adjective to your noun with a hyphen.When used as compound adjectives, expressions like "three-and-a-half" and "two-and-a-quarter" are often hyphenated to make it clear they're one entity. If you decide to use hyphens in such a term, don't join your adjective to your noun with a hyphen.
- He wants four-and-a-quarter-billion.
- He wants four-and-a-quarter billion. (Here, "four-and-a-quarter" is a compound adjective modifying the noun "billion." Joining them with a hyphen would be as wrong as writing "He wants a nice-car.")
- He wants four-and-a-quarter-billion pounds. (This time, the hyphen between "quarter" and "billion" is correct because "billion" is now part of the compound adjective modifying "pounds.")
- She's a twenty-four-year-old woman. (All too often, the hyphen after "year" is mistakenly omitted.)
(Point 4) Use your spellchecker smartly to spell compound nouns correctly.Some compound nouns are one word (e.g., "snowman," "aircraft"), some are two words (e.g., "fish tank," "cell phone"), some compound nouns are hyphenated (e.g., "know-how," "runner-up"), and some have more than one acceptable spelling (e.g., "paper clip," "paper-clip," and "paperclip").
Your spellchecker will not test the two-word version or the hyphenated version as a single entity. In other words, it will not highlight "air craft" or "air-craft" as an error (even though it should be "aircraft"). So, you have to test the one-word version. If your spellchecker doesn't like the one-word version, you have a choice between the two-word version and the hyphenated version. Often, this really is your choice. Use a hyphen for clarity (i.e., to make it instantly obvious it's a single entity) and to eliminate ambiguity.
- pen friend / pen-friend (The hyphenated version is clearer. It stands out as a single entity, making it easier to read.)
- cooking oil / cooking-oil (The hyphenated version makes it clear the oil is not cooking.)
(Point 5) Use your spellchecker and your instinct to determine whether to use a hyphen with a prefix.If you're unsure whether to use a hyphen with a prefix, start by not using a hyphen. However, use a hyphen if the unhyphenated version:
- Looks too unwieldy for your taste ("antiaircraft" might be an example).
- Is highlighted as a spelling mistake by your spellchecker (e.g., "reestablish").
- Is ambiguous (e.g., "Re-cover the sofa" is not ambiguous, but "Recover the sofa" is.)