Hyphen: The Easy-to-Use Guide to Hyphens To Demystify Their Use

In the English language, there is often a fine line that exists between a phrase’s potential meanings. Take for example, the sentence, “Two hundred odd students from the school showed up for the football game.’ At first glance, you might not see anything wrong, until you realize that you aren’t sure if the speaker means that there are two hundred students that are odd or if they are referring to an estimated number.

Adding a hyphen to this sentence adds more clarity. Try reading the sentence with hyphenation in place.

  • Two hundred-odd students from the school showed up for the football game.

Most likely, you’ll find that this sentence makes more sense when the word “odd” is clearly connected to the number and not the students.

hyphen definition

What Is A Hyphen?

Hyphens (-) are short lines placed between words that help clarify your writing so there isn’t any confusion. While they are meant to help your writing be more straightforward, you will want to make sure you use them correctly to minimize common grammar errors.

Know the Difference Between Hyphens and Other Dashes

A hyphen is the smallest out of all of the other dashes that you’ll come across in writing. You can usually spot one by its length and the lack of space between the dash and the words it connects.

There are two other common dashes, that are called the em and en dash. The em dash is used to express a break in a sentence, much like how you would use a parentheses. Depending upon the word processing program you are using, you might need to use a special character for an em dash, but some software converts two small dashes into one long one as you type.

The en dash falls between the size of a hyphen and an em dash. En dashes are typically used to show a range of numbers. You may see spaces between en and em dashes and the numbers or words they connect, but this often depends upon the style guide that the writer is using at the time.

Avoid Having a Free-For-All With Hyphen Use

If you love using compound words, then you might be tempted to use hyphens as much as possible. While peppering your writing with hyphens brings clarity, it can also start to look clunky or overwhelming if they fill the page.

When To Use A Hyphen

Learning when to use hyphens for their biggest effects helps you to strategize how and when they’ll make the biggest impression on a reader.

Hyphenate Compound Modifiers Before a Noun

A compound modifier adds more information about a noun. Connecting them with hyphens helps to create a phrase that represents a single idea. Here are a few examples of hyphens being used with compound modifiers.

  • I just finished my three-mile run.
  • I try to avoid meat-based products due to my special diet.
  • Jacob just found a twenty-dollar bill outside.

Use Hyphenation On Three-Syllable Words

When a compound word has three syllables, or is longer, it can sometimes be confusing to add a suffix. Here, hyphens help to join the two words so that it is clear they go together.

  • Do you know if this smoothie is vegetable-based?
  • The foggy morning created a Halloween-like atmosphere.
  • We worked hard to make sure the products were customer-ready.

Remember to Hyphenate Certain Noun Phrases

You’ll find that there are certain noun phrases that are always hyphenated. Usually, these phrases contain an article or preposition that rests between two words. You’ll also use a hyphen to join two nouns that have a similar status. Check out these hyphen examples of the dash being used in noun phrases.

  • My father-in-law is running late to the holiday dinner.
  • She used such a matter-of-fact tone in her speech.
  • I miss riding the merry-go-round at the playground.

Use These Hyphen Rules for Error-Free Writing

There are a few more simple-to-follow rules for using hyphens, and practicing them all can help you to keep your writing free of glaring errors. Memorizing these rules will help you feel confident with using hyphens.

Follow the Number Rule

Compound numbers that fall within the range of 21 and 99 need hyphens between the two words when you put them in written form. For example, you will write that the car was going sixty-two miles an hour.

Don’t Use a Hyphen With Certain Adverbs

When you have an adverb that ends in the modifier, -ly, you don’t need to add this punctuation mark. Doing so would only break up the word and make it confusing. Go ahead and write that someone was happily reading a book or quietly walking down a path without worrying about adding a dash.

Skip the Hyphen for Closed Compound Words

Certain compound words are meant to go together without being hyphenated. Firefighter is one of these words, and keyboard is another. As you practice writing, you’ll become more familiar with closed compound words versus those that need a hyphen.

When in doubt about when to use hyphens, make sure to consult with a style guide or grammar book. While learning the rules makes them easier to use, there are always a few odd instances that can cause some confusion. For further clarity, brush up on the basics about em and en dashes. You’ll soon be writing professional-appearing essays and articles that demonstrate your knowledge of one of the most interesting punctuation marks that you can use in your writing.

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