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Hyphens: When and When not to Use Them


The Standard Definition of a Hyphen

The hyphen is a type of punctuation mark that has two primary purposes in the English language today. First, the hyphen is utilized as a means of joining words. Second, the hyphen is used as a mechanism to separate syllables.

It is important not to confuse a hyphen with a dash. Generally speaking, a dash should be longer in form than a hyphen and is used for entirely different purposes.

The practice of using hyphens to either join words or to separate syllables is known quite simply as “hyphenation.”


The Hyphen and Writing and Editing Styles

The fact is that unlike with most other punctuation marks, there is yet to be amassed a truly definitive set of rules governing the use of the hyphen. There are derivations in which the hyphen is utilized based upon the particular style manual that is being followed or based upon the particular dictionary that is being used for reference.

Moreover, there can be derivations in the way hyphens are utilized from country to country as well. Thus, in the end, when it comes to both a writer and editor dealing with the proper use of hyphens, it is vitally important to utilize appropriate reference materials and style manuals that are suitable both to national usage and overall reliability in regard to hyphenation.

In recent times, when it comes to the use of the hyphen, one of the primary objectives of writers and editors alike is for the hyphen itself to better support the overall ease of reading. This is particularly the case in regard to more complex written constructions. Thus, in some instances, the bottom line actually has become in regard to hyphenation and hyphen placement a consideration of what will best make it easier for a reader to read, digest and understand a particular text. Deviations from what previously may have been considered standard protocols for hyphen use are accepted in many instances if such a deviation will render it easier (rather than more difficult) for a reader to understand a particular piece of copy, manuscript or text.


Basic Rules and Considerations Using Hyphens

The most fundamental rule regarding the proper use of the hyphen is that there should be no space between the hyphen and the words that are being connected. An illustration can be helpful. The incorrect use of a hyphen is as follows:


Incorrect placement of the hyphen in this instance includes:

Thirty -five
Thirty- five
Thirty - five

There is an exception to this rule when one is dealing with what is frequently referred to as a “suspended hyphen.” An example of a properly utilized suspended hyphen is:

eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors


A space appropriately is placed after the first word and between the conjunctive. As you will see, there is not space between the final words associated with the suspended hyphen. Once again, this is the only instance in which it is permissible to leave a space between the hyphen and words that are being conjoined.

The hyphen also plays a crucial role when it comes to what are known as compound modifiers. Typically, when the compound modifier appears before the noun or pronoun that is to be modified, a hyphen becomes necessary and is utilized. An example of what is meant by this practice can be most helpful to you in this regard.

American-football player

With the hyphen, it is clear that a discussion is being made of an individual who plays American football. If you take away the hyphen:

American football player


With the hyphen removed, it becomes completely impossible to ascertain which word actually is being modified. You cannot tell if you are writing of an American who plays football or if you are writing of a player from some other country who plays American football. In short, absent the helpful hyphen (indeed, the vital and necessary hyphen) confusion reigns.

As intimated earlier in this article in a description on another matter, numbers below 100 are hyphenated.  As was set forth above, a proper way of writing out a number below one hundred would be:


In addition, and along the same lines, hyphens are used when a person writes out a fractional number. For example:


The hyphen is also becoming ever more common when it comes to surnames. Of course, hyphens have been used in conjunctive surnames for generations. However, in this day and age, it is becoming even more widespread as women who marry strive to maintain their maiden names as part of their surnames. In this regard, the proper usage of the hyphen is as follows:

Sarah Jones-Walker


The Hyphen and Syllable Separation

Before the mass use of the computer, when a manuscript was being typed it oftentimes was necessary to utilize a hyphen in order to separate a word as an ongoing sentence reached the side of the page. An example of hyphenation is used to break apart syllables (particularly for the purposes described in this section) is:



British English and American English Hyphen Usage

There are some differences in the manner in which the hyphen is used in the United Kingdom and in the United States, although these differences actually are rather minimal.  For example, in the U.K. certain prefixes will be hyphenated when they will not be so separated in the U.S:

pre-school in the U.K. whilst preschool in the U.S.

co-worker in the U.K. whilst coworker in the U.S.


When Not to Use a Hyphen

As mentioned previously, there are no longer truly hard and fast rules associated with hyphenation and the use of a hyphen. One could argue that from a historical perspective, a hyphen should never be used except in those specific situations in which it is called for – including those situations that have specifically been discussed in this article.

However, and as has been noted previously in this article, the more accepted practice today is that should a hyphen actually enhance a reader's ability to understand something or another that is written, it should be utilized and any hard and fast rules governing the use of the hyphen can appropriately be left at the wayside.