What is a Hyphen and How to Use It? - English Grammar - The English Digest

What is a Hyphen and How to Use It?

June 26, 2024 English Comments Off

Introduction to Hyphen

The hyphen (-) is a small punctuation mark that often goes unnoticed but plays a crucial role in clarifying meaning and ensuring the smooth flow of written text. Hyphens can change the meaning of a sentence and prevent ambiguity. As the famous author and grammarian Lynne Truss once said, “The hyphen joins, while the dash separates.”

What is a Hyphen?

A hyphen is a punctuation mark used to join words or parts of words together. It is shorter than a dash and has specific functions in writing. It helps form compound words, split words at the end of a line, and link prefixes to root words.

The Importance of Hyphen

Hyphens are essential for creating clear and precise communication. Without them, sentences can become ambiguous or even humorous due to misinterpretation.

For example, consider the difference between “man-eater” and “man eater.” A “man-eater” is a creature, like a tiger or a shark, that eats humans. In contrast, a “man eater” could imply a person who eats men, which is a confusing and unclear phrase without the hyphen.


  1. Man-eater vs. Man eater:
    • A “man-eater” refers to a dangerous animal that preys on humans.
    • A “man eater” could imply a person who consumes men, which makes little sense without the hyphen.
  2. Small-business owner vs. Small business owner:
    • A “small-business owner” owns a small business.
    • A “small business owner” suggests an owner who is physically small, which is not the intended meaning.
  3. Re-cover vs. Recover:
    • “Re-cover” means to cover something again.
    • “Recover” means to regain health or strength after illness or exertion.
  4. Co-worker vs. Coworker:
    • A “co-worker” is a colleague at work.
    • Without the hyphen, “coworker” can be misread as “cow orker,” which is nonsensical.
  5. Re-sign vs. Resign:
    • “Re-sign” means to sign again.
    • “Resign” means to quit a job or position.

How and Where to Use Hyphens

1. Compound Modifiers: Multiple-Word Adjectives Before Nouns

Hyphens are used to connect multiple-word adjectives that come before nouns, ensuring clarity and avoiding misinterpretation. A compound modifier is when two or more words together form an adjective and describe a noun.


  1. A well-known artist
    • “Well-known” describes “artist,” indicating that the artist is famous.
  2. A high-speed internet connection
    • “High-speed” modifies “internet connection,” specifying the type of connection.
  3. A long-term project
    • “Long-term” specifies the duration of the project.
  4. A full-time student
    • “Full-time” clarifies the type of student.
  5. A user-friendly software
    • “User-friendly” describes the software’s ease of use.

Note: If the compound adjective comes after the noun, we typically don’t hyphenate it:

  • The artist is well known.
  • The internet connection is high speed.
  • The project is long term.
  • The student is full time.
  • The software is user friendly.

2. Hyphens and Compound Modifiers with Participles

Hyphens are used with present and past participles when they function as compound modifiers, ensuring that the reader understands the relationship between the words.

Present Participle Examples

  1. A fast-moving train
    • Example: The fast-moving train passed by in a blur.
  2. A thought-provoking book
    • Example: Her new novel is a thought-provoking book that challenges societal norms.
  3. A slow-cooking stew
    • Example: We’re having a delicious slow-cooking stew for dinner tonight.
  4. A mind-blowing experience
    • Example: Visiting the ancient ruins was a mind-blowing experience for everyone.
  5. A record-breaking performance
    • Example: The athlete gave a record-breaking performance at the Olympics.


If the participle/modifier comes after the noun, hyphens are not used:

  • The train is fast moving.
  • The book is thought provoking.
  • The stew is slow cooking.
  • The experience was mind blowing.
  • The performance was record breaking.

Past Participle Examples

  1. A well-maintained park
    • Example: The city prides itself on having a well-maintained park for all to enjoy.
  2. A high-priced gadget
    • Example: She just bought a high-priced gadget for her home office.
  3. A custom-built house
    • Example: They live in a beautiful custom-built house on the outskirts of town.
  4. A hand-written letter
    • Example: She received a touching hand-written letter from her grandmother.
  5. A recently-published article
    • Example: The recently-published article has stirred quite a bit of controversy.

Note 1:

If the participle/modifier comes after the noun, hyphens are not used:

  • The park is well maintained.
  • The gadget is high priced.
  • The house is custom built.
  • The letter is hand written.

Note 2:

Participles with Adverbs Ending in -ly

When combining an adverb that ends in -ly with a participle, you should not use a hyphen. The adverb naturally modifies the participle without needing a hyphen.


  • Incorrect: She wore a beautifully-crafted dress.
  • Correct: She wore a beautifully crafted dress.
  • Incorrect: He gave a poorly-written report.
  • Correct: He gave a poorly written report.
  • Incorrect: They enjoyed a highly-anticipated event.
  • Correct: They enjoyed a highly anticipated event.
  • Incorrect: The hastily-prepared meal was a disaster.
  • Correct: The hastily prepared meal was a disaster.
  • Incorrect: It was a perfectly-timed joke.
  • Correct: It was a perfectly timed joke.

3. Hyphens with ‘High’ and ‘Low’

When using “high” or “low” as part of a compound modifier, a hyphen is necessary when the compound is used before the noun it modifies. This helps maintain clarity and readability.

  • Low-cost solutions: The company is exploring low-cost solutions for the budget crisis.
  • High-speed internet: Many rural areas still lack access to high-speed internet.
  • Low-calorie snacks: He prefers low-calorie snacks to maintain his diet.
  • High-quality materials: The furniture is made from high-quality materials.

4. Hyphens and Compound Words

Compound words can be open (written as separate words), closed (written as a single word), or hyphenated (linked with a hyphen). The use of hyphens in compound words clarifies the relationship between the words and helps to avoid confusion.

Open Compound Examples:

  1. Living room
    • Two words that, when combined, represent a single concept.
  2. Post office
    • Two separate words describing a place.

Closed Compound Examples:

  1. Notebook
    • A single word combining two concepts.
  2. Toothpaste
    • One word made up of two elements.

Hyphenated Compound Examples:

  1. Mother-in-law
    • Hyphenated to indicate the relationship.
  2. Editor-in-chief
    • Hyphenated to show the title.

5. Hyphens with Prefixes

Using hyphens with prefixes can help maintain clarity and prevent confusion in writing. Here are some guidelines and examples to demonstrate their proper usage.

Capitalized Words, Numbers, and Abbreviations

When the main word is capitalized, a number, or an abbreviation, a hyphen is used with the prefix.

  • Anti-American sentiment: There was noticeable anti-American sentiment in the speech.
  • Pre-1990s technology: Many pre-1990s technologies are now obsolete.
  • Pro-NATO policies: The government adopted pro-NATO policies.

Avoiding Awkward or Confusing Words

If the prefix ends with the same letter as the main word begins, a hyphen is used to make the word less awkward or confusing.

  • Anti-inflammatory: She took anti-inflammatory medication for her knee pain.
  • Co-op: They decided to join a housing co-op.
  • Re-enter: Please re-enter your password.
  • Semi-independent: The colony remained semi-independent for many years.

Prefixes with “Self”

Most compound words starting with “self” use a hyphen, regardless of their part of speech.

  • Self-confidence: Building self-confidence is important for personal development.
  • Self-absorbed: He was criticized for being self-absorbed.
  • Self-improvement: She focused on self-improvement through reading and courses.
  • Self-taught: He is a self-taught musician.
  • Self-regulation: Self-regulation is a key skill for children to learn.

Hyphens with Numbers

Hyphens are used when writing out the numbers 21 through 99.

  • Thirty-two: She received thirty-two birthday cards.
  • Forty-eight: The project is scheduled to last forty-eight weeks.
  • Sixty-seven: The novel spans sixty-seven chapters.
  • Ninety-nine: The temperature reached ninety-nine degrees.

Difference Between Hyphen and Other Punctuation Marks

Hyphen vs. En Dash (–)

  • Hyphen: Joins words (e.g., mother-in-law).
  • En Dash: Indicates ranges (e.g., 2020–2021) or connections (e.g., New York–London flight).

Hyphen vs. Em Dash (—)

  • Hyphen: Joins words (e.g., well-being).
  • Em Dash: Creates a strong break in a sentence (e.g., She was late—again!).

Hyphen vs. Colon (:)

  • Hyphen: Joins words (e.g., part-time).
  • Colon: Introduces a list or explanation (e.g., She bought three items: apples, oranges, and bananas).

Hyphen vs. Semi-Colon (;)

  • Hyphen: Joins words (e.g., user-friendly).
  • Semi-Colon: Links closely related independent clauses (e.g., She loves reading; he loves writing).

Hyphen vs. Comma (,)

  • Hyphen: Joins words (e.g., high-speed).
  • Comma: Separates elements in a sentence (e.g., I bought apples, oranges, and bananas).

Wrong Use of Hyphens with Incorrect and Correct Examples

  • Incorrect: He is a well known writer.
  • Correct: He is a well-known writer.
    • Explanation: “Well-known” is a compound modifier describing “writer.”
  • Incorrect: We have a part time position available.
  • Correct: We have a part-time position available.
    • Explanation: “Part-time” is a compound modifier describing “position.”
  • Incorrect: She is my sister in law.
  • Correct: She is my sister-in-law.
    • Explanation: “Sister-in-law” is a compound word.
  • Incorrect: This is a high quality product.
  • Correct: This is a high-quality product.
    • Explanation: “High-quality” is a compound modifier describing “product.”
  • Incorrect: The celebration is for thirty five-year olds.
  • Correct: The celebration is for thirty-five-year-olds.
    • Explanation: “Thirty-five-year-olds” is a compound number and noun.
  • Incorrect: I need to re enter the password.
  • Correct: I need to re-enter the password.
    • Explanation: “Re-enter” avoids confusion with the word “reenter.”
  • Incorrect: We offer user friendly services.
  • Correct: We offer user-friendly services.
    • Explanation: “User-friendly” is a compound modifier describing “services.”
  • Incorrect: The pre existing conditions were not disclosed.
  • Correct: The pre-existing conditions were not disclosed.
    • Explanation: “Pre-existing” is a compound modifier describing “conditions.”
  • Incorrect: This is a long term goal.
  • Correct: This is a long-term goal.
    • Explanation: “Long-term” is a compound modifier describing “goal.”
  • Incorrect: They have a three fourths majority.
  • Correct: They have a three-fourths majority.
    • Explanation: “Three-fourths” is a fraction used as an adjective.

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