This post helps you understand how to use hyphens in English.
What is a hyphen in English?
A hyphen is a punctuation mark that is used to join two or more words or parts of a sentence. The most usage of a hyphen is to form compound adjectives.
Joining words using a hyphen is an easy task, but using the right words to add using a hyphen or hyphens is a task. So, let’s understand all the different usages of a hyphen in English.
1. Use hyphens to form a compound adjective.
A compound adjective is a word that is formed out of two or more words using hyphens. Like any other adjective, it, too, modifies a noun. But form a compound adjective using hyphens only when it helps readers to identify the adjective, which could be difficult to do without using them.
He can’t take any pressure removing classes from the Jon Academy. (Incorrect)
In this sentence, it sounds (or may sound) that the speaker can’t take pressure and remove the Jon Academy classes. But in reality, he is talking about classes for removing pressure. Hyphenating the words that are modifying the noun ‘classes’ would make the meaning of the sentence clear.
He can’t take any pressure-removing classes from the Jon Academy. (Correct)
Now, after hyphenating words (pressure, removing) that are modifying the noun classes, the sentence gives a clear meaning.
- I am giving you a one-in-a-life opportunity.
- It was a well-deserved award.
- He just enrolled in an English-speaking class.
- It is not fat-free chocolates.
- You are a good-looking man.
NOTE: if compound adjectives are not followed by a noun, don’t use hyphens to connect compound adjectives.
- This guy is not good looking.
- The chocolate is fat free.
2. If you are writing or forming a unique or new noun/adjective using two or more words, use hyphens to join them to avoid confusion.
His eating-my-food habit annoys me.
Here, ‘eating-my-food’ is working as an adjective, modifying the noun ‘habit’ it’s coming before. It’s formed by hyphenating three different words.
- What you’re dealing with a common big-city problem.
- They call me once-in-a-blue-moon–drinker sometimes.
3. Numbers starting from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated when they are spelled out.
- I have thirty-six students in my class.
- The man has twenty-four cars.
- The hotel is sixty-five kilometers away.
- There were one hundred thirty-two participants in the hall.
Exception: Numbers 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 are not hyphenated.
4. Use hyphens to tell the age of a person or a thing.
- That’s a fifty-year-old building.
- She has a four-year-old kid that dances amazingly well.
Note: if the number is expressed in a plural form, we don’t the adjective using the hyphens.
- The building is fifty-years old.
5. Use hyphens to join compound verbs.
Compound verb: it is a combination of two words acting as a verb.
Common compound verbs: binge-watching, spoon-feeding, court-martial, double-click, air-condition, test-drive,
- I will binge-watch this series.
- He was court-martialed last week.
- We don’t do spoon-feeding here.
Note that these words are used without the hyphen these days.
6. Use hyphens to with compound words (noun).
A compound word (noun) is formed using two or more words. There are three types of compound words in English:
- Open compound words
- Closed compound words
- Hyphenated compound words
Hyphenated compound words are rarely used in modern English as they are used as open or closed compound words now. But there are some compound words that are still hyphenated.
- My father-in-law is a doctor.
- The runner-up will not an award.
Open compound words: living room, waiting room, dining room, school bus, etc.
Closed compound words: email, bookstore, notebook, football, birthday, etc.
7. Use hyphens to connect a prefix to other words.
Words starting with prefixes such as ex, self, anti, post, and pre are often hyphenated.
- He still loves his ex-girlfriend.
- You don’t become anti-national by pointing out and addressing the negatives of your country.
- There are a lot of pre-wedding rituals that are to be followed yet.
- I love his post-fight speech.
- The only thing you lack is self-confidence.
Most prefixes in English are joined with other words without using a hyphen. We generally don’t use hyphens to add prefixes to other words unless they may create confusion.
Common prefixes in English
- ante (before)
- anti (against)
- auto (self)
- co (together)
- com (with)
- contra (against)
- ex (former/last)
- homo (same)
- im (not)
- macro (big)
- micro (small)
- mono (one/alone)
- omni (every)
- pre (before)
- post (after)
- tri (three)
- un (not)
Words using prefixes
- co-worker, cooperate
- comrade, companion
- contradiction, contrary
- ex-girlfriend, ex-governor
- homosexual, homonyms
- immortal, impractical
- macroscopic, microorganism
- microscope, microcomputer.
- monologue, monopoly
- omnipresent, omnipotent
- preschool, precede
- postmortem, postcrisis
- trilogy, triangle
8. Use a hyphen after a prefix if the word coming after it is a proper noun (capitalized word).
- They are running an anti-Modi campaign.
- We are having a post-Diwali party.
- The world was a hell pre-World War 2.
- My exams start in mid-January.
9. Use a hyphen after the prefix ‘re’ if not using it can cause confusion with a different word.
- You might need to repress the button. It didn’t work the first time. ❌
- We should re-press our feelings. ❌
- You might need to re-press the button. It didn’t work the first time. ✔️
- We should repress our feelings. ✔️
- It’s time to recover the sofa. The dust coming through the window is making it dirty.❌
- Did you re-cover the file? ❌
- It’s time to re-cover the sofa. The dust coming through the window is making it dirty.✔️
- Did you recover the file? ✔️
Re-press = press something again
Repress = to not allow something
Re-cover = to cover something again
Recover = to get back something that was lost