How to use hyphens in your writing

How to Use Hyphens in Your Writing

What is a hyphen (-)?

  • A hyphen is a punctuation mark that primarily joins words or parts of words
  • You can use hyphens when writing compound modifiers when it comes before the word it’s changing
  • Dictionaries are the best place to find out whether a word needs a hyphen or not!

Are you using hyphens?

  • The primary use of hyphens during formal writing is to show that the linked words should be read together as one unit of meaning.
  • We call these compound modifiers and they help avoid confusion for the reader.
  • Here are some more examples:
  • self-induced
  • well-established
  • 10-minute intervals
  • check-up

Choosing when to you a hyphen can be complex and involves quite a few rules. 

When to use a hyphen?

Compound modifiers are two words that work together to change the meaning of the noun that follows. Let’s look at an example:

  • Incorrect: In six days, we will move you to 10 minute sessions.

The sentence above is unclear: Does it mean 10 sessions, one minute long or sessions 10 minutes long?

  • Correct: In six days, we will move you to 10-minute sessions.

By adding the hyphen, the compound modifier becomes clear to your audience!

When should I not use a hyphen?

Compound nouns such as ice cream, lifestyle and even weekend have lost their hyphens over the years to become two separate words or one combined word. These are called closed and open compound words.

Here are some examples of closed compound words:

  • Notebook
  • Waistcoat
  • Fireman
  • Healthcare

Here are some examples of open compound words:

  • Sweet tooth
  • High school
  • Dinner table
  • Coffee mug

Numbers are often hyphenated as well, especially before a noun such as ‘a 59-year-old male’.

How can I practise using hyphens?

It’s super easy to practise using hyphens. You can do this when you’re reading or take some time to work on it specifically.

Hyphen usage is something to notice when you are reading. Make note of words which are written with a hyphen and build up a list you can refer to for reference.

You can also use a dictionary to check the spelling of particular words.

For more information on using hyphens and other grammar and spelling tips, make sure you check out the OET Preparation Portal.


A dash is a little horizontal line that floats in the middle of a line of text (not at the bottom: that’s an underscore). It’s longer than a hyphen and is commonly used to indicate a range or a pause. Dashes are used to separate groups of words, not to separate parts of words like a hyphen does. There are three forms of dashes: em, en, and the double hyphen.

The most common types of dashes are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). A good way to remember the difference between these two dashes is to visualize the en dash as the length of the letter N and the em dash as the length of the letter M. These dashes not only differ in length; they also serve different functions within a sentence.

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Em Dashes

Em dashes save the day when other punctuation would be awkward. For instance, em dashes can replace parentheses at the end of a sentence or when multiple commas appear in a parenthetical phrase.

After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball (or, rather, limped for it).

After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball—or, rather, limped for it.

Colons enable a writer to introduce a clause that amplifies whatever came before the colon. They are more formal than dashes. However, em dashes are more emphatic than colons. When you want to generate strong emotion in your writing or create a more casual tone, use em dashes. Compare these sentences:

He is afraid of two things: spiders and senior prom.

He is afraid of two things—spiders and senior prom.

Writers and transcriptionists replace unknown, censored, or intentionally omitted letters with em dashes. In these cases, em dashes appear in pairs or threesomes.

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A former employee of the accused company, ———, offered a statement off the record.

“H—— are all the same. They cause trouble wherever they go.”

Carved into the dresser drawer was a faded inscription: “Made for Kristina, by your de——ted sailor.”

En Dashes

Recall that en dashes are slightly shorter in length than em dashes. En dashes may look similar to em dashes, but they function in a much different way.

Using the En Dash to Indicate Spans of Time or Ranges of Numbers

The en dash is often used to indicate spans of time or ranges of numbers. In this context, the dash should be interpreted as meaning either “to” or “through.” Consider the examples below:

The teacher assigned pages 101–181 for tonight’s reading material.

The scheduled window for the cable installation is 1:00–3:00pm.

The 2015–2016 fiscal year was the most profitable year for the new business.

Using the En Dash to Denote a Connection

The en dash may also be used to indicate a connection between two words. Use an en dash when you need to connect terms that are already hyphenated or when you are using a two-word phrase as a modifier. When the dash is used in this way, it creates a compound adjective. See the following examples:

The pro-choice–pro-life argument is always a heated one.

The Nobel Prize–winning author will be reading from her book at the library tonight.


Compound terms are those that consist of more than one word but represent a single item or idea. They come in three styles.

Open (or spaced) compounds are written as separate words.


  • printing press
  • car wash
  • chief of staff

Hyphenated compounds use hyphens between the words.


  1. eye-opener
  2. check-in
  3. free-for-all

Closed (or solid) compounds are written as a single word.


  • lifestyle
  • bookstore
  • whodunit

Compound nouns are the easiest to deal with: most of them can be looked up in a good dictionary. Keep in mind, though, that many compound nouns start out spaced or hyphenated before eventually becoming solid, with dictionaries often lagging behind current usage.

Compound verbs (e.g., waterproof, highlight, rubber-stamp, nickel-and-dime) also are typically included in a dictionary.

The most difficult compound terms to deal with are the compound adjectives. For one thing, most of them will not be found in any dictionary. For another, whether they are hyphenated or not depends on their position within a sentence. Whether to hyphenate or not is often a matter of style. Some basic guidance is offered below.

Two or more words that collectively act as an adjective should be hyphenated when they appear immediately before the noun they modify. This helps prevent misreading.


  1. Voters are fed up with this do-nothing congress.
  2. The victim is being described only as a twenty-five-year-old man.
  3. Does this come with a money-back guarantee?
  4. The house comes with a state-of-the-art security system.
  5. Though the one-bedroom apartments are sold out, we still have several two-, three-, and four-bedroom units available.

The major exception is when the compound adjective begins with an adverb ending in -ly

Hyphens and Dashes | English Grammar | EF

A hyphen joins two or more words together while a dash separates words into parenthetical statements. The two are sometimes confused because they look so similar, but their usage is different. Hyphens are not separated by spaces, while a dash has a space on either side.


Generally, hyphens are used to join two words or parts of words together while avoiding confusion or ambiguity. Consult your dictionary if you are not sure if a hyphen is required in a compound word, but remember that current usage may have shifted since your dictionary was published.

There are some cases where hyphens preserve written clarity such as where there are letter collisions, where a prefix is added, or in family relations. Many words that have been hyphenated in the past have since dropped the hyphen and become a single word (email, nowadays).

In some cases though, a hyphen does change the meaning of a sentence.

Hyphens in numbers

  • Use a hyphen with compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
  • In written fractions place a hyphen between the numerator and denominator except if there is already a hyphen in either the numerator or the denominator.
  • Use a hyphen when a number forms part of an adjectival compound


Dashes can be used to add parenthetical statements or comments in much the same way as you would use brackets. In formal writing you should use the bracket rather than the dash as a dash is considered less formal. Dashes can be used to create emphasis in a sentence.

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How to Use Hyphens in Your Writing

By Geraldine Woods

Hyphens are multipurpose punctuation marks. They help you maneuver through unexpected line breaks, separate parts of compound words, write certain numbers, and create one description from two words. Here you learn the basics of using hyphens.

Using hyphens to break lines

Computer users have to worry about hyphens less often than other writers. But when you’re writing by hand or typing on an old-fashioned typewriter (do they still exist?), you may need to divide a word at the end of a line to avoid a long blank space along the right-hand margin. If you have to divide a word, follow these simple rules:

  • Place the hyphen between the syllables, or sounds, of a word. (If you’re not sure where the syllable breaks are in a word, check the dictionary.)
  • Don’t leave only one letter of a divided word on a line. If you have a choice, divide the word more or less in the middle.
  • Don’t divide words that have only one syllable.

Web addresses can be very long. Don’t divide them with a hyphen. Either place the Web address on its own line or, if you absolutely have to divide, chop the address at a period or slash mark.

The practice of dividing a word between syllables is American. In Britain, words are often divided according to the derivation (family tree) of the word, not according to sound.

For example, in the American system, democracy is divided into four parts — de-moc-ra-cy — because that’s how it sounds.

In the British system, the same word is divided into two parts — demo-cracy — because the word is derived from two ancient Greek forms, demos (people) and kratia (power). Let the dictionary of the country you’re in be the final authority on dividing words.

Using hyphens for compound words

Hyphens also separate parts of compound words, such as ex-wife, pro-choice, mother-in-law, and so forth. When you type or write these words, don’t put a space before or after the hyphen.

The trend in modern writing is toward fewer punctuation marks. Thus, many words that used to be hyphenated compounds are now written as single words. Semi-colon, for instance, has morphed into semicolon. As always, the dictionary is your friend when you’re figuring out whether a particular expression is a compound, a single word, or two separate words.

Hyphens also show up when a single word might be misunderstood. For example if you get an e-mail that says, “I resent the e-mail.” You might question whether you have offended someone or whether the writer meant written re-sent.

Placing hyphens in numbers

Decisions about whether to write a numeral or a word are questions of style, not of grammar. In general, larger numbers are usually represented by numerals:

Roger has been arrested 683 times, counting last night.

However, on various occasions you may need to write the word, not the numeral. If the number falls at the beginning of a sentence, for example, you must use words because no sentence may begin with a numeral. You may also need to write about a fractional amount. Here’s how to hyphenate:

  • Hyphenate all the numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
  • Hyphenate all fractions used as descriptions (three-quarters full, for example).
  • Don’t hyphenate fractions used as nouns (three quarters of the money; one third of all registered voters).

Using the well-placed hyphen

If two words create a single description, put a hyphen between them if the description comes before the word that it’s describing (no hyphen if the description follows the word it’s modifying). For example:

a well-placed hyphen, but the hyphen is well placed.

Don’t hyphenate two-word descriptions if the first word ends in -ly:

nicely drawn rectangle

completely ridiculous grammar rule

Hyphen Use // Purdue Writing Lab


A comprehensive rundown on the proper use of the hyphen.

Two words brought together as a compound may be written separately, written as one word, or connected by hyphens. For example, three modern dictionaries all have the same listings for the following compounds:

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hair stylist hairsplitter


Another modern dictionary, however, lists hairstylist, not hair stylist. Compounding is obviously in a state of flux, and authorities do not always agree in all cases, but the uses of the hyphen offered here are generally agreed upon.

  1. Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:
    a one-way street chocolate-covered peanuts

    well-known author

    However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

    The peanuts were chocolate covered. The author was well known.

  2. Use a hyphen with compound numbers:
    forty-six sixty-three

    Our much-loved teacher was sixty-three years old.

Hyphen and Dash

We know that sometimes words contain hyphens. There is considerable variation in this area (that is, not everyone agrees on the proper use of hyphens), but there are a number of cases in which hyphens are used that we must bear in mind. Also always try to be consistent, so that you do not write the same word in different ways in the same text.

At the end of a line of writing

  • If possible, put the hyphen between two parts of a compound word (eg. motor- at the end of one line and cycle at the beginning of the next one).
  • Otherwise, put the hyphen before a suffix (understand -ably, instead of understa -ndably) or after a prefix (mono- transitive, instead of monot- ransitive).
  • Words that are not compounds and which do not contain affixes are normally not long enough to have to be divided at the end of a line.
  • In compounds
  • Generally speaking, compounds can be written in three different ways in English, namely as one word, as two words with a space between them, or with a hyphen between the first and the second part of the word.
  • In many cases, there is variation among writers, and writing conventions change over time, so always consult a recent and trusted dictionary when in doubt. However, the following general rules and advice should be useful:

Compound adjectives are often (but not always) written with a hyphen. A compound adjective is typically an adjective that consists of an adjective + a participle (e.g. long-lasting and short-natured), a noun + a participle (thought-provoking and data-driven), or a noun + an adjective (camera-ready, lead-free).

It is extra important to use a hyphen when not using one could lead to ambiguity. For instance, we should not write ten year old children if we mean ten-year-old children, since ten year old children could equally well refer to ten children that are one year old (i.e. ten year-old children).

Generally speaking, compound premodifying adjectives, that is, adjectives that precede and modify the head of a noun phrase, are more often written with a hyphen than compound adjectives functioning as predicatives. This is especially important to remember when the compound adjective contains the adverb well. For example, even though we could very well write as in (1), we have to use the hyphen in (2):

(1) I find this paper well written.

(2) This is really a well-written paper.

Similarly, we have to use hyphens if a premodifying adjective is formed from a phrase (3), even though we may leave out the hyphen when such a compound adjective functions as predicative (4):

(3) A new state-of-the-art laboratory on Deeside marks a big step ahead in Wales' drive for economic renewal and green jobs.

(4) This document is part of a series of reviews of the state of the art in cognitive systems.

Compound numbers less than 100 are spellt with a hyphen (e.g. seventy-six, thirty-five). 

Phrasal verbs have no hyphens when they are verbs (5), but when they are used as nouns, they get a hyphen, as in (6) below.

(5) Long queues started to build up at these security checkpoints.

(6) There was a build-up of fluid in the inner ear, and the doctors drained the fluid out so the child could hear.

After a prefix

We insert a hyphen between a prefix and a number or a proper noun (name):

(7) This is a pre-2004 phenomenon.

(8) This would reduce the risk of the further deterioration of Iraq into a post-Yugoslavia type of situation.

We also include a hyphen in order to avoid words getting mixed up, so, for instance, we write re-cover, if we do not mean recover, as in (9):

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