Using hyphens effectively

When writing academically or professionally, we may encounter challenges when using hyphens (-), such as how we should use them and when we should use them. This post presents some easy to follow rules to ensure that your writing is not affected by ineffective or inappropriate hyphenation.

What are hyphens?

using hyphens

Hyphens are short horizontal lines ( – ) that link certain words together to show a relationship. For example, thirty-five, ex-partner, etc.

So what are the guidelines for using hyphens?

1. To connect two-part adjectives

We typically place a hyphen between two-part adjectives where the second part has an -ing or -ed suffix:

  • The long-suffering mother continued to support her wayward child.
  • She was always pleased to hear her partner referred to as good-looking.
  • The end of a long relationship can leave both parties feeling broken-hearted.
  • The brown-eyed visitor surveyed the room.

Using hyphens is also important to show that there is a strong relationship between the two nouns:

  • The blue-green sea shimmered in the morning sunlight.
  • The Manchester-Madrid flight leaves in ten minutes.
  • The Spurs-Fulham game has been abandoned due to a flooded pitch.

2. To connect compound adjectives

When we create a phrase that functions as an adjective before a noun, we hyphenate the phrase to show it functions as one single adjective:

  • Armies often operate a shoot-to-kill policy.
  • We enjoy having access to up-to-the-minute news.
  • They arrived in a well-polished Mercedes.

However, compound adjectives placed predicatively after the noun are not hyphenated:

  • The army’s policy was shoot to kill.
  • The news we enjoy most is up to the minute.
  • The Mercedes was well polished.

3. In two-part nouns

Two-part nouns are hyphenated in British English where the first noun receives the primary word stress:

  • lorry-driver
  • a ‘paper-shop
  • some ‘running-shoes

4. To connect compound nouns (with prepositions)

  • She is my sister-in-law.
  • He is my brother-in-law.

5. To connect some prefixes to their nouns

We can use hyphens to link the prefixes ex-, non- and co- to their nouns:

  • She is my ex-headmistress.
  • We work in a non-smoking environment.
  • My co-workers are excellent colleagues.

Using hyphens to avoid confusion when using other prefixes is also acceptable:

  • The counter-argument is that investment creates employment.
  • You can now pre-order the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Pushing into the front of a queue is considered very un-British.

6. Two-part verbs beginning with a noun

We use hyphens to connect two-part verbs that begin with a noun:

  • I am going to baby-sit for my brother this evening.
  • We can’t come to the party because we are flat-hunting at the moment.
  • He goes out wind-surfing every Sunday afternoon.

7. Numbers

We use hyphens to link two-part numbers:

  • thirty-seven
  • sixty-two
  • one hundred and forty-nine

8. Word division

Hyphens are also used to connect words that may be separated between lines due to space constrictions:

We are writing collectively to request that your discrimin-
atory immigration laws are reviewed.

Change in usage

The rules for using hyphens can be confusing, and the usage may not always be clear. As a result, hyphens are being used less frequently and a number of originally hyphenated words are now written as one complete word (e.g., takeover, weekend, whiteboard). As such, you may encounter three different forms for the same word (e.g., bookshop, book-shop or book shop).

Hopefully this blog has offered some helpful rules to follow when using hyphens but if you are still unsure, the best solution is to either check in a trusted dictionary source, or write the words without the hyphen.