Knowing when to use a hyphen in a sentence improves your grammar. It allows you to tell between hyphenated adjectives and open compound words. This skill also helps you differentiate between a hyphen and a dash.
If you’re not sure whether you should hyphenate a word or not, this guide will show you the rules, usage, and examples you need to learn.
What is a Hyphen?
Compound words are common in English writing. Some examples include “brother-in-law,” “ex-commissioner,” and “anti-intellectual.” The hyphen (-) is a type of punctuation mark that connects these multiple words. Place the hyphen between the letters without any spaces.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hyphen is a “punctuation mark that divides or compounds different numbers, word elements, and words.” However, not all compound words use a hyphen.
Hyphen vs. Dash
A hyphen connects numbers and words, while a dash separates them. Many get confused between the two because they are commonly found in non-fiction and fiction writing, and they have a similar look.
You can interchange the two in informal writing but not in formal contexts.
A hyphen (-) joins two words to have one meaning. Use hyphens in writing as compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives. For example:
The en dash (–) is a type of dash that marks ranges with the meaning “to.” For example:
- Denver–Los Angeles.
- Pages 68–78.
In the phrases “between… and…” and “from… to…,” you can keep the word “to” or “and” instead of including the en dash.
- Incorrect: She traveled from Washington–London to see him.
- Correct: She traveled from Washington to London to see him.
Sometimes, an en dash can replace a hyphen in a compound adjective. This rule applies to open compounds. For example:
- The post–World War II years were difficult for some countries.
The em dash (—), which is longer than the hyphen and en dash, separates information in a sentence. It separates details that you can remove from the sentence without consequence. The punctuation mark functions as a pair of commas or parentheses. For example:
- Berries—such as blackberries, strawberries, and cherries—should be added as cake toppings.
In this sentence, you can remove the phrase “such as blackberries, strawberries, and cherries,” and the sentence is still understandable. Write the em dash without spaces on both sides.
How to Use a Hyphen in a Sentence
In grammar, the most common use of a hyphen is if two words function together as an adjective before the noun they modify. These words are called hyphenated adjectives. You may also use it to divide a word with inadequate space in the line for the whole word.
Use hyphens at the end of a line when dividing a word that doesn’t fit in the line. Make sure you’re dividing between syllables, and you don’t divide a one-syllable word. Here’s an example:
- Ronald asked Jemma, “When are you perform-ing?”
Do not divide a word into syllables if there’s only one letter left in the word. In the same way, do not divide the word into syllables if only two letters will start the line. Instead, place the whole word in the following line.
- Incorrect: She’s not a-fraid of the dark.
- Correct: She’s not afraid of the dark.
Hyphens in compound nouns are common. But others can also be in the form of open or closed compounds. Here are some examples of hyphenated compound nouns:
- My brother-in-law came to visit yesterday.
- She was promoted to editor-in-chief.
Note that modern dictionaries have different spellings for some words. For example, some prefer “bookkeeper,” while others recommend “book keeper.” Only a few say that it should be “book-keeper.” Check your preferred dictionary if you’re unsure.
The plurals of compound nouns can be tricky. But the general rule is to add “s” to the principal word. For example:
Use a hyphen for a compound modifier only if the word you are modifying is right after the modifier. Hyphenated compound adjectives are the most common modifiers. For example:
- Please refrain from making last-minute changes to the paper because we might not be able to explain them.
- We have three two-bedroom units available.
In this sentence, “last-minute” is hyphenated as a single adjective because the word it modifies, “changes,” comes after it. Here are other examples of phrases that use hyphens in compound adjectives:
- High-level radiation.
- Prize-winning book.
- Four-storey building.
- Cost-effective project.
- Real-time plotting.
Larger compound adjectives also use hyphens. For example:
- Their not-so-happy ending led to a divorce.
- Wait until he sends you the it’s-not-you-it’s-me message.
Some complex compounds require an en dash instead of a hyphen. These difficult compound terms change the punctuation because the element is an open compound or hyphenated compound. For example:
- The old man was a National Book Award–winning writer.
- The e-book–only publisher sent me an approval email.
Consult the dictionary to check if you should hyphenate some familiar compound verbs. Here are some examples of hyphenated compound verbs in sentences:
- Thanks for gift-wrapping my purchase.
- She baby-sat the neighbor’s sons last week.
Use a hyphen every time you form original compound verbs for particular contexts or humor. For example:
- An uninspired man video-games his problems away.
Participle compound adjectives are another type of compound modifier that sometimes require hyphenation. In the English language, participles are words that come from a verb but can act as adjectives or construct verb tenses.
However, a key rule is only to hyphenate participles when the participle you are mixing comes after the noun. As with other compound adjectives, hyphenating means the words function as one unit of meaning. For example:
- The good-looking man stared at me.
- A well-known chef will be cooking for the wedding.
Avoiding Double Vowels
Use a hyphen to make words with double vowels more readable. For example:
- The country stayed semi-independent after being colonized.
- Hallmark is a pre-eminent greeting card company.
Use a hyphen with compound numbers. For example:
- Isn’t she turning forty-six this year?
- This company turned fifty-five years old last month.
Age or Period of Time
Use a hyphen to tell the age and lengths of time of things and people. A handy rule to avoid confusion is to use hyphens except when the period is in plural form. This guideline applies to months, years, weeks, days, and more. For example:
- Lily and Ron now have a three-year-old child. (compound adjective)
- Lily and Ron now have a three-year-old. (multi-word compound noun)
In the first sentence, “three-year-old” is a unit that modifies the noun “child.” In the second sentence, “three-year-old” is a noun in itself.
Here’s a sentence example where you don’t need to put a hyphen because “years” is in plural:
- Lily and Ron’s child is two years old.
Estimates of Time, Distance, and Other Values
Use a hyphen to indicate distance and time estimates. Do not add a space between these characters. For example:
- I’ll be there at around 2:00-2:30 PM.
- There will be 300-400 attendees.
Some publishers ignore this rule for hyphens. Instead, they use an en dash. For example:
- 2:00–2:30 PM.
English and Metric Units
Most style guidelines use hyphens for modifiers that show metric and English units. For example:
- The businessman owns a 50-foot yacht.
- Four people carried the 100-pound dining table.
But The Chicago Manual of Style states that you shouldn’t use a hyphen when using the abbreviation for measurement. Here are some examples:
- The businessman owns a 50 ft. yacht.
- Four people carried the 100 lb. dining table.
Joining a Prefix With Another Word
Another rule on when to use a hyphen is when you join a prefix to a capitalized word. For example:
You should also use hyphens in prefixes “self-,” “all-,” and the reflexive prefix “ex-.” For example:
Joining a Word With a Suffix
Suffixes are letters that you can find after a root word. They form new words with different meanings. For example, adding the suffix ize after scandal turns it into scandalize.
Always add a hyphen with the suffixes “-elect,” “-type,” and “-designate.” For example:
- All the books I read mentioned the heroic act of the president-elect.
Some words with the suffix “like” also require a hyphen if the root word has three or more syllables. For example:
- The factory-like school building needs a renovation.
The suffix “-like” also needs a hyphen if the combination of letters forms two L’s or if the root word used is a proper noun. For example:
- The Sydney Opera House has a famous shell-like structure.
- She knows how to make Burger King-like burgers.
- The citizens want the woman to be re-elected for a second term.
The Prefix Re-
Use a hyphen with “re-” if removing the hyphen will change its meaning or cause confusion. For example:
- The upholsterer re-covered the couch in red fabric.
Removing the hyphen will cause confusion with recover, which means “to return to the normal state of health, strength, or mind.”
- Try to re-press the button.
If you remove the hyphen, it will cause confusion with repress, which means “to subdue someone or something using force.”
Add a hyphen letter by letter if you’re trying to explain or show how to spell out a word. For example:
- The correct spelling of “chiaroscurist” is c-h-i-a-r-o-s-c-u-r-i-s-t.
Use a hyphen to show crying or stammering when narrating. For example:
- “I’m s-s-sorry I broke the c-car.”
What Can I Use Instead of Hyphen?
You can use other symbols or punctuation marks instead of a hyphen, depending on the context.
Colon or Dash
Never use a hyphen to denote a break or pause in your sentence. Instead, try a colon or a dash. For example:
- Incorrect: They finally came up with a unanimous verdict-not guilty.
- Correct: They finally came up with a unanimous verdict: not guilty.
- Correct: They finally came up with a unanimous verdict—not guilty.
The first sentence implies that “verdict-not” is a hyphenated compound word when it’s not.
“To” and “Through”
It’s incorrect to use a hyphen in place of “to” or “through,” except when discussing dates. Here’s an example:
- Incorrect: We were together from the fall of 2016 – summer of 2017.
- Correct: We were together from the fall of 2016 to the summer of 2017.
Use the conjunction “and” instead of a hyphen if the word “between” appears before. For example:
- Incorrect: The estimated arrival time is between 5-8 in the morning.
- Correct: The estimated arrival time is between 5 and 8 in the morning.
Examples of Hyphens in Sentences
Here are more examples of how you can use hyphens in sentences.
Last month, BuzzFeed, whose founder Jonah Peretti has insisted that his company’s ad-based model would allow it to provide free news to many more people than the Times’s subscribers base, announced another round of cuts to its news unit (Vox)
Five Fifty-Five North will open in The Federal hotel, and Bay Bowls launches a second location. (Portland Press Herald)
Same for Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 22 points, but also missed six free throws. These are the not-so-little things that derail a team in a winnable playoff game. And this game certainly was winnable. (Dallas Mavericks)
Place the pan in the hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes, then fluff the rice and check the texture. Once it’s ready to go, re-cover the rice and let it sit on the counter until serving time. (The Pioneer Woman)
It stated that the proposed development would provide 14 dwellings in a mix of five one-bed and two two-bed ground floor apartments, in addition to five three-bed and two four-bed duplexes. (Echo Live)
To Hyphenate or Not?
Use a hyphen to separate words and word elements instead of separating parenthetical statements. You should also use hyphenated adjectives if the word they modify comes after the modifier. It’s also correct to use this punctuation mark to tell lengths and time estimates.
I hope this article boosted your grammar by teaching you when to use a hyphen in a sentence.