The Correct Use of Hyphens

When I was in high school, they still offered Latin as a language choice–yep, it was that long ago.

I took Latin and even achieved membership in the National Latin Honor Society. One of my favorite sayings back then was

Latin’s a dead language. It’s dead as dead can be. It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me!

I’ve heard people say they feel the same way about English–it’s a killer to learn and even worse to use.

Because English is a living language, some words evolve and use hyphens in the process. For example, simple words start out as two words (turn key). Then, for a relatively short period of time, they become hyphenated (turn-key). Finally, the two words join to form one (turnkey).

I’ve just given you one way to use the hyphen. Here are some others:

  • Use a hyphen to avoid doubling or tripling a letter when adding a prefix (before the word) or suffix (after the word). Example: part-time.
  • Use a hyphen when the root word you’re adding a prefix to is capitalized. Examples: pre-Christmas, pro-American.
  • In general, use a hyphen whenever you use the prefixes all-, self-, ex-, and vice-. Examples: all-purpose, self-centered, ex-wife, vice-chair.
  • Use a hyphen to avoid ambiguity or difficult pronunciation. Examples: anti-abortion, re-read.
  • Use a hyphen after a series of words having a common base that you’re not repeating. Example: first-, second-, third-, and fourth-year students.
  • Use a hyphen to unite two or more words to convey a single idea (these are known as compound words). Examples: president-elect, decision-maker, right-of-way, forty-year-old.
  • Use a hyphen in compound adjectives. Examples: well-designed home, up-to-date statistics, cost-of-living allowance.
  • Use a hyphen in numbers. Examples: two-thirds, twenty-one.
  • Use a hyphen when combining numbers and unit measures as adjectives. Examples: two-week pay period, twelve-inch ruler.
  • Use a hyphen to combine a stand-alone capital letter with a word. Examples: U-turn, T-shirt, X-rated.
  • Use a hyphen to divide a word at the end of a typed line when there’s no more room for the rest of the word. Remember, however, that you must adhere to the word’s syllable break and not just put the hyphen anywhere. Examples: chil-dren, birth-day, pos-si-ble.

As you can see, the hyphen has many uses. And some of the applications will change as the English language evolves. Authors understand that language is an important tool, as is punctuation. Put the two together correctly and your readers will appreciate your writing even more.

Happy writing!


6 Responses to “The Correct Use of Hyphens”

  1. 1 Ted November 18, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Nice writeup. When are hyphens not used? Isn’t it true that hyphens are not used in Latin. e.g. in situ, ad hoc,

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