What is a hyphen? A hyphen is yet another piece of punctuation that can be difficult to use. So often it is confused with em dashes and en dashes because of how similar they all look. Thankfully, the hyphens function within a sentence is slightly different to the others, So, by learning about how to use a hyphen correctly, you should be able to learn how to avoid confusing them with em and en dashes.
The Hyphen (-)
What is a Hyphen?
The symbol (-) is called a hyphen in the English language. A hyphen is a short horizontal line used within words. It is a punctuation mark that is smaller than both the en dash (–) and the em dash (—) and it behaves quite differently in sentences too.
The hyphen (-) is different from en dash (–) and em dash/ long dash (—). It is a symbol (-) that is slightly narrower than an en dash (–). The em dash (—) is twice as long as the en dash (–). They are different in appearance and usage.
A hyphen is a punctuation mark with three main uses. Many people confuse this punctuation mark with the dash, but the two are quite different. The hyphen can be used in compound words, to link words to prefixes, and also as a way to show word breaks
Key Points to Remember When Using a Hyphen
It would be difficult to remember every rule associated with a hyphen because there are so many different ways to use them. The key though, is knowing that hyphens are very different to em dashes and en dashes and they are not interchangeable as some people mistakenly believe. If you look over this guide a few times though, you should get to grips with hyphens and their various uses. Just remember the rule from the section on when not to use a hyphen though, so you don’t make the common mistakes that others do.
- An English-speaking country.
- A full-length portrait of the Queen hung on the wall.
- Writing a dictionary is a never-ending task.
- Co-worker, co-pilot, co-operation.
- He’s working maybe twenty-five hours a week.
“A Hyphen is a Type of Dash?”
A hyphen is indeed a type of dash. But it works very differently from the others, and will only ever be found within words to show that they have been compounded or joined together to form one meaning. Some people may refer to other dashes as a long hyphen, but again this isn’t strictly speaking correct. Saying terms like long hyphen simply confuses things already. It’s best to stick with hyphen (-) en dash (–) and em dash (—).
When to Use a Hyphen
How and When to Use a Hyphen
There are many different ways that a hyphen can be used. Unlike the em dash or the en dash, hyphens are far more common in writing and it has a variety of different functions. We’ll try to cover them all throughout this guide, but you may come across hyphens being used in different ways elsewhere too. This is because hyphens are so often used in nonstandard and informal writing in many different creative ways. We couldn’t possibly list them all here though, but below is a general overview.
One of the more standard ways to come across hyphens in writing is when it is being used within compound words. These are words that are joined together to convey one meaning. This is very common but here are some examples:
Prefixes to Words
In many cases words with prefixes are not actually fully conjoined, instead a prefix is attached to the word using a hyphen. Here are just some examples:
Hyphens with Participles
We can use hyphens with present participles (words ending in ‘ing’) and past participles but ONLY when the participle and the adjective that you are combining to describe something else comes after the noun. If the noun comes first, then you drop the hyphen. Here are 2 examples. The first is using a present participle and the second is using a past participle:
- A beautiful-looking garden stood proudly at the front of the house.
- A garden stood at the front of the house, it was beautiful looking.
Because we used the adjective and the participle before the noun we were describing (in this case the garden) we were OK to use a hyphen. In the example below, we used the noun (the garden) first, so we couldn’t use the hyphen for beautiful looking.
- A well-known chef is cooking here tonight.
- A chef that is well known is cooking here tonight.
- Again, the same rules apply to past participles too.
Hyphens With Compound Modifiers
Compound modifiers are simply two words that are joined to act as one adjective to describe something else. Here are some examples in sentences:
- The long-haired girl walked into the bar.
- It’s a prize-winning book.
- The well-educated professor spoke a lot of sense.
Whenever we write a number instead of putting its digits down instead, we need to use a hyphen whenever it is more than just one number. For example:
Again, if we aren’t expressing fractions as digits, then we need to remember to include a hyphen. Here are some examples in sentences:
- She ate two-thirds of the pie.
- I’m only going to earn one-quarter of my wages this week because I’m sick.
- The cake was cut into five pieces. He took three-fifths for himself.
Spelled out Words
Sometimes in writing, we need to show that we are spelling out a word. Perhaps it is in fiction and your character needs to spell out their name to someone. Whatever the case, we always use hyphens between each letter to show that we are spelling out the words. Here’s just one example.
- “And what is your name ma’am,” the receptionist asked.
- “And how am I spelling that?”
Sometimes we need to show the number of syllables in a word. Perhaps if you are a teacher and you’re trying to teach children a new word, breaking the word into syllables might be easier. To represent the syllables we usually use hyphens. Like this:
Indicating a Stammer
This is a technique that is most often seen in fiction writing, but it can be seen elsewhere too. If you’re character speaks with a stammer, or you’re trying to indicate that they are scared of something and their voice is trembling, you can use a hyphen to represent the stammer in their speech. Like this:
- “I-I’m sorry, I d-didn’t realize it was you.”
- “Pl-please don’t h-hurt us!”
- “I forgot m-my h-homework.”
Hyphens with High or Low
When using high or low as a compound word to describe something you should always hyphenate the words. Below are some common examples in sentences:
- The crash was high-impact.
- The buyer was low-balling to see if they could get the car for cheaper.
- The doctor was held in high-esteem.
When not to Use a Hyphen
As we’ve already discussed, if a participle (a verb acting as a noun or adjective) is part of the compound word to describe a noun it should only be hyphenated if it comes before the noun. Here is one more example to make that clearer:
- The good-looking officer entered the house.
- The officer entered the house, he was good looking.
When the noun (in this case the officer) that you are describing comes before the participle compound adjective, then you do not hyphenate. When the noun comes after, you do hyphenate.
How to Type a Hyphen
Typing hyphens are much easier than en dashes and em dashes because there is actually a key for it on all keyboards. Simply hit the ‘-‘ key and a hyphen will appear.
Common Hyphen Mistakes and How to Avoid
There’s really only one rule when it comes to hyphens, but breaking this rule is surprisingly common. Besides that, any mistakes are largely due to confusing hyphens with em dashes and en dashes. First, we’ll highlight the differences between hyphens and em dashes and en dashes, and then we’ll take a closer look at the most common mistakes people make when using hyphens.
Hyphen vs. En Dash
An en dash (–) is very different from a hyphen (-). En dashes are used to show a span or a range, a score, or a conflict/connection between two words. A hyphen would likely be confused with an en dash when joining words. Remember though that the connection/conflict that en dashes are used for are for nouns generally. So things like ‘Liberal–Conservative debate’ ‘London–Paris flight’, whereas hyphenated words generally act as adjectives such as ‘dog-friendly restaurant’ ‘high-impact crash’ etc, Remembering this key difference should help you to avoid making the mistake of mixing the two of them up.
Hyphen vs. Em Dash
An em dash (—) is again, very different from a hyphen (-). Em dashes are used to replace punctuation (such as commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons) or are used to show an interruption or represent missing words or parts of a word. Hyphens have many uses, but it does not replace punctuation like em dashes do. The key way to remember the difference between these two is not only the size difference, but also that em dashes do not appear within a word, but hyphens always do.
The Key Hyphen Rules
This is the one rule to remember above all others to avoid making grammar mistakes. A hyphen should only be used when a participle is used in a compound adjective when you use the words before the noun you are describing. Because we’ve covered this a couple of times now, we’d like to put you to the test. Decide whether the following sentences are correct or not, and keep the key rule in your mind as you look:
1) The fast-acting medicine worked well.
2) The cars were incredibly fast-paced.
3) The beautiful-sounding birdsong broke out early in the morning.
1) Correct! We used the participle adjective before the noun!
2) Incorrect! The noun we are describing (the cars) comes before, so it should be ‘fast paced’ not ‘fast-paced’. Like this:
The cars were incredibly fast paced.
3) Correct! We used the noun after the compound adjective, so we should hyphenate in this situation.
Examples of Using Hyphens in Sentences
Again, we’ve already looked closely at many different ways to use it, so this section will just include examples of all the ones you will most commonly come across in sentences so you can see the hyphen in action a little more!
- Check-in is at 2 o’clock.
- She had always been kind-hearted.
- I work full-time at the grocery store.
- My self-esteem has been higher than ever lately.
- She’s much happier now that her ex-husband has moved out of town.
- You should practice more self-love to be happier,
- She put on a world-class performance.
- I prefer hands-on learning.
- My puppy won best-in-show at the competition.
- I’ll be thirty-two next March.
- The number twenty-seven bus goes that way.
- I counted sixty-four apples before my Mom stopped talking to her friend at the grocery store.
- He won a half-million on the lotto!
- Two-thirds of the class were boys.
- One-third of the class were girls.
To Indicate A Stammer
- “I’m s-so s-sorry.”
- “B-but I d-don’t want to g-go.”
- “Y-you c-can’t stop m-me.”
With High Or Low
- The high-rise apartments offered the nicest views.
- She’s dealing with low-confidence right now.
- The music was low-volume to help her fall asleep.
Hopefully, the previous guide on hyphens and this one has made you feel more confident with using hyphens in your own writing. As always, we thought it’d be a good idea for you to put your knowledge to the test to see if you can spot the correct and incorrect usage of hyphens so you can be confident in using them yourself. In the following examples, decide if they are correct or incorrect. If you think they are incorrect, how should the sentence look?
1) The crash had been low-impact.
2) The singer was well-known and coming to the party tonight.
3) My self-esteem is high, but even I couldn’t approach the beautiful-looking girl.
4) “I—I’m s—so sorry!”
5) I’ll be fifty two next Spring.
1) Correct! Remember, we should always use a hyphen when we use the words high or low to help describe something.
Because we reveal the noun (the singer) that we are describing before the participle compound adjective, we should not hyphenate. So, to be correct it would have to be written as one of the two following examples:
- The singer was well known and coming to the party tonight.
- The well-known singer was coming to the party tonight.
We used a hyphen to connect the prefix ‘self’ to the word ‘esteem’ which is correct. We then also used the participle compound adjective in the right way because we used it before the noun we were describing (in this case, the girl).
We can use a hyphen to represent stammering, but in this case we replaced it with an em dash. Remember to always be vigilant for the size differences between the hyphen (-) en dash (–) and the em dash (—). It should have looked like this:
- “I-I’m s-so sorry!”
5) Incorrect! With any numbers or fractions we must always hyphenate. So it should have looked like this:
- I’ll be fifty-two next Spring.