The hyphen, often also known as the “minus” symbol, is a very active and often used punctuation mark in western writing. Time to have a closer look at this little buddy and all the rules it comes with. Learn how to correctly use a hyphen and which exceptions are applied to the known grammar rules.
Do not, however, confuse the hyphen with one of the dashes we have talked about in an earlier article: All You Need To Know About En Dash & Em Dash
Rules For Using The Hyphen
Hyphens are used in two main “contexts” after which we will structure this article as well. They are used:
- in between words
- with prefixes and suffixes
Hyphens Between Words
The main purpose of the hyphen is to link two or more words in a sentence, showing that they belong together from a semantic point of view. There are even some compounds that are always hyphenated. They can be looked up in any dictionary where they will occur in their hyphenated form.
These compounds can be formed using different types of words:
- compound adjective: It was a live on-air screening.
- compound verbs: He half-assed his way through college.
- compound nouns: She’s your typical do-gooder.
The most common usages of hyphenated compounds is when using either newly made up nouns that could still cause confusion for readers, or when telling the age of someone. Furthermore, numbers from 22 to 99 are written using a hyphen as well which improves the readability of those numbers. Likewise, fractions are hyphenated unless they are introduced with a or an.
- People who refuse vaccination are commonly described as anti-vaxxers nowadays.
- He was a five-year-old brat.
- Thirty-four, fifty-nine
- Less than two-third of pupils knew the difference between your and you’re.
Usually, double names are also written with a hyphen:
- Miss Claire Butch-Gardener is on the phone, Sir.
Generally, it can be said that you can use a hyphen when in doubt or to make yourself clear. A compound adjective or compound noun can only gain clarity and never lose meaning when being hyphenated. Thus, using a hyphen is always a safe bet.
Of course there are also instances, where the hyphen can not be used between words. Adverbs like very and other adverbs ending in –ly are never adjoined with other words using a hyphen. Furthermore, proper nouns that consist of more than two words are not hyphenated either, e.g. Award Winning Actress.
Prefixes & Suffixes
Prefixes and suffixes are very productive components of our speech. They both belong to the group of affixes and are formed of one or more letters and added either to the beginning (prefix) or end (suffix) of a word. In other languages, even more affixes exist, like the infix (inserted into a word) or circumfix (encompassing a word).
Prefixes change the meaning of a word more or less drastically, while suffixes are used to change the word type, e.g. from noun to adjective.
Prefixes are hyphenated under certain circumstances, but not always. when turning safe into unsafe, no prefix is needed. However, in the following environments, a hyphen should be used:
- before proper nouns: mid-August
- in family relations: great-great-granddaughter
- when the prefix ends and the following word starts with a vowel: semi-accurate
- with the prefixes self-, ex- and all-: self-destructive, ex-boyfriend, all-seeing
- if prefixes could cause confusion with other existing words: reenter vs. re-enter
Suffixes are rarely hyphenated, very unlike prefixes. Words like applicable or extremism do not call for being hyphenated. Only in a few instances, a hyphen should be used in between a word and its suffix. For example:
- after proper nouns: Windows-like
- when the suffix starts and the previous word ends with the same letter: Mini-ism
- when the suffix -like would form a cluster of three l: ball-like
- with the suffix -elect: public-elect
When it comes to affixes, checking back with a dictionary is highly advised. Most prefixes and suffixes do not need a hyphen. However, when forming an unusual word using a prefix or suffix, hyphenating the word can help to prevent confusion for your readers.
One Last Rule
There is one last rule that applies when using a hyphen in between words or with suffixes and prefixes that you should not forget about: Don’t use spaces before and after a hyphen!
The hyphen always stays close to the letters of a word and is never written with a space in between.