Hyphen Punctuation - Let's Demystify Their Use

Hyphen punctuation can be confusing. 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.

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

hyphen definition

What's 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 ensure you use them correctly to minimize common grammar errors.

When to Use Hyphens

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.

Hyphen Rules for Error-Free Writing

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

Hyphen 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, the car was going sixty-two miles an hour.

  1. My grandad is going to be seventy-five next week.
  2. There are twenty-one boxes to pick up.
  3. They chatted for fifty-four minutes.
  4. Sixty-three locals live here.
  5. I need thirty-six donuts.

Only Use a Hyphen With Certain Adverbs

When you have an adverb that ends in a modifier like -ly, you don’t need to add a hyphen 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.

  1. Happily ✅
  2. Angrily ✅
  3. Quietly ✅
  4. Slowly ✅
  5. Quickly ✅

Adverb Plus Participle

If the adverb doesn't end in -ly, you can go ahead and add a hyphen if the adverb plus the participle compound comes before a noun.

  1. Well-fed cattle.
  2. Ever-reaching dreams.
  3. Far-reaching winds.
  4. Short-term plan.
  5. Full-scale test.

Compound Adjectives with Hyphens

Hyphen punctuation is used to show that words in a compound adjective are together, not apart.

  1. Far-too-chatty
  2. Never-to-be-forgotten
  3. Ironing-board
  4. Man-eating
  5. High-risk

Avoiding a Free-For-All With Hyphen Use

If you love compound words, 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. So, use hyphens wisely!

Skip the Hyphen for Closed Compound Words

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

  1. Fire-fighter ❌ Firefighter ✅
  2. Cup-cake ❌ Cupcake ✅
  3. Bed-room ❌ Bedroom ✅
  4. Brain-storm ❌ Brainstorm ✅
  5. After-noon ❌ Afternoon ✅

Should Prefixes be Hyphenated?

Use a hyphen to join a prefix to a word if the word could be misunderstood or if double vowels would happen, where the first word ends with the same vowel as the beginning of the next word. Equally, use a hyphen to join a prefix if the hyphen joins a proper noun or proper adjective.

  1. Ex-husband
  2. Anti-intellectual
  3. Post-colonialism
  4. Vice-principle
  5. Self-confidence

Hyphen Quiz

Think you've got it? See if you can complete this hyphen quiz. Got a question wrong? Press reset and try again.

1. True or false? You must always use a hyphen when writing 19.

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Possible answers

2. Where does the hyphen go in the word Ultraambitious?

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3. True or false? Compound adjectives can be linked together by a hyphen to show that they are part of the same adjective.

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4. Choose the correct sentence.

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5. Choose the correct sentence.

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Knowing 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.

Em & En Dashes

There are two other common dashes, and they are called the em and en dashes. 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 the writer uses.

When you're in doubt about when to use hyphens, consult 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 demonstrating your knowledge of one of the most interesting punctuation marks you can use in your writing.