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Hyphens

Why do we use hyphens? When we write, we can use punctuation to make the meaning/intentions of our language clearer. Punctuation is important in English; without it, it would be difficult to determine the structure and meaning of our language. For example:

Take the following sentence:

"Let's eat, grandma."

The meaning of this sentence is straightforward. A person is addressing their grandma and wants to eat with them. However, if you were to remove the comma, the meaning could be interpreted differently:

"Let's eat grandma."

This instead implies that the person wants to eat their grandma!

We can use a range of different punctuation in our writing, but this article will focus on hyphens. We will look at the meaning of hyphens and some examples (including hyphenated words and hyphens used in sentences). Hyphens are often confused with dashes, so we will also explore the differences between the two.

Hyphens Meaning

A hyphen is a short horizontal line (-) used to join words together or to join syllables within the same word. It is often used to make the meaning of words clearer and prevent misunderstanding (such as misreading or mispronunciation).

Hyphens Image of a keyboard StudySmarterFig. 1 - Hyphen on a keyboard.

Did you know: the word 'hyphen' comes from the Greek 'huphen', meaning 'together.'

Hyphens Example

Hyphens are used for a variety of different reasons. Below are some examples of the different ways hyphens can be used to modify words and add more clarity to a word's meaning:

Hyphenated Compound Words

Compound words are two or more words that are combined to form a single word that conveys one meaning. For example, bed + room = bedroom.

Hyphens can be used in between compound words to show the reader that they express a single idea and function as one unit of meaning. For example:

Hyphens in Compound Nouns

  • self-esteem
  • passer-by
  • sister-in-law

Hyphens in Compound Verbs

  • proof-read
  • kick-start
  • force-feed

Hyphens in Compound Adjectives

  • good-looking
  • long-distance
  • high-quality

Creating Adjectives

Hyphens are also used to create adjectives (also called compound adjectives). This often happens when we talk about numbers (e.g., ages, dates, percentages) and only when the numbers come before a noun. For example, for phrases such as 'four-year-old boy' or 'six-month-long project,' the numbers act as an adjective, so they become hyphenated.

Consider a different example:

Hyphens State of the art text StudySmarterFig. 2 - State-of-the-art is an adjective.

State of the art is a noun phrase when written without hyphens. However, when hyphens are added, it turns into the adjective 'state-of-the-art.' E.g., "He bought a new state-of-the-art sound system."

Attaching a Prefix to a Root Word

A prefix is a letter/group of letters added to the beginning of a root word (the core form of a word). Sometimes, a prefix is attached to the root by using a hyphen. This is often done to make sure the word is not misread or mispronounced. For example:

Writing 'co-operate' instead of 'cooperate.'

'Cooperate' could easily be misread or mispronounced as there are double vowels (two of the same vowels next to each other). Adding a hyphen between the prefix and root word separates them visually into two syllables and helps readers know how to pronounce the word.

Writing out Numbers and Fractions

Hyphens can be used when writing out numbers and fractions. This is done to make it easier to comprehend them. For example:

  • two-thirds
  • thirty-five

Writing a List

Hyphens can be used between words in a list to join multiple things together and show that they express the same idea. For example:

"Here we sell one-, two-, and three-story apartment buildings."

Hyphens can be used to spell out words one letter at a time. This makes it easier to distinguish between each letter. For example, when spelling out the word 'friend', you could write it as f-r-i-e-n-d or F-R-I-E-N-D.

They can also be used in between syllables to show how to pronounce a word. For example, take the word 'apologetic.' This can be separated into different syllables and written out as 'a-po-lo-ge-tic.'

Hyphen Words

Below are some more examples of hyphenated words. How many of these words do you use often?

Hyphenated words (two)Hyphenated words (three)
co-existmatter-of-fact
long-termmother-in-law
full-scalenineteen-eighty-one
absent-mindedmerry-go-round
brain-washedup-to-date
record-breakingeditor-in-chief
quick-wittedhappy-go-lucky
re-doforget-me-not

Did you know: When three words are joined together with hyphens, they can be referred to as trigrams.

Hyphens in a Sentence

Below are some examples of sentences with hyphenated words:

Hyphenated words used in sentences
You need to re-apply for the university course.
Ben was fiery-tempered, so he was quick to anger.
Add two-thirds of the flour into the mixing bowl.
She was born in nineteen-ninety-three.
You are at a higher risk of infection if you have a pre-existing condition.
Take a ten- or fifteen-minute break.
Please write a three-page essay on a subject of your choosing.
This song is very well-known.
I can tell that this argument is one-sided.

Hyphens and Dashes - What is the Difference?

Hyphens can often be confused for dashes as they look similar! However, they do differ slightly and are both used for different reasons.

A hyphen is used to separate two or more words. There should not be a gap between the hyphen and the word. For example, 'double-edged' does not need to be written as 'double - edged.'

On the other hand, a dash is used to separate different parts of a sentence and emphasize a certain idea within that sentence. It works in a similar way to brackets. A dash is slightly longer than a hyphen and should have a space on either side of the words. For example:

Of course, I'll play baseball with you - as long as I win!

'Emma - my oldest cousin - is moving to Australia.

We watched a horror movie - I was terrified the whole time.

Dashes can also be used to show a range of time, for example:

2018 - 2022

April - June

Hyphens - Key Takeaways

  • A hyphen is a short horizontal line (-) used to join words together or syllables within the same word.
  • A hyphen is often used to make the meaning of words clearer and prevent misunderstandings and mispronunciations.
  • Hyphens can be used in between compound words (nouns, adjectives, and verbs), to create adjectives, to attach a prefix to a root, to write out numbers and fractions, and to link ideas together in a list.
  • Hyphens can also be used to spell out words, either between each letter or syllables.
  • A hyphen is used between two or more words, with no gap between them. On the other hand, a dash is used to separate parts of a sentence and has a space on either side.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hyphens

Hyphens can be used to:


1. Join words in a compound noun

2. Join words in a compound verb

3. Join words in a compound adjective (and create adjectives)

4. Attach a prefix to a root word

5. Write out numbers and fractions

6. Write a list

Hyphens can be used in sentences to join two or more words together. This is often done to make the meaning of words clearer and prevent misunderstanding.

Hyphen words are words that are joined with a hyphen (-). For example, pre-book, self-esteem, and high-quality.

Hyphens are usually placed between two (or more) compound words to join them together.

A hyphen looks like a small horizontal line: -

Final Hyphens Quiz

Question

Which of the following is a hyphen?

Show answer

Answer

-

Show question

Question

What is a hyphen?

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Answer

A hyphen is a short horizontal line used to join words together, or syllables within the same word.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Hyphens can only be used to join two words together.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Take a look at the following compound words and add hyphens to each one:


proofread

rewrite

Show answer

Answer

proof-read

re-write

Show question

Question

Hyphens can be used to attach a prefix to a root word. What is a prefix?

Show answer

Answer

A prefix is a letter/group of letters added to the beginning of a root word

Show question

Question

Hyphens can be used to attach a prefix to a root word. What is a root word?

Show answer

Answer

A root word is the core form of a word.

Show question

Question

Hyphens can be used to separate words into syllables and help with the pronunciation of words.


Write the word 'watermelon' using hyphens to separate the syllables.

Show answer

Answer

wa-ter-me-lon.

Show question

Question

How would you label the following?


self-assurance

Show answer

Answer

hyphenated compound noun

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Question

How would you label the following?


level-headed

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Answer

hyphenated compound adjective

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Question

How would you label the following?


kick-start

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Answer

hyphenated compound verb

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Question

True or false?


Dashes are longer than hyphens

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Answer

True

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Question

Fill in the blank:


There _______ be a space between a hyphen and a word.

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Answer

should not

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Question

Fill in the blanks:


Hyphens are often used to make the meaning of words _______ and prevent ________________.

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Answer

clearer, misunderstanding

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Question

Why is it better to write 'co-ordinate' instead of 'coordinate'?

Show answer

Answer

'coordinate' could be misread or mispronounced as there are two of the same vowels next to each other. Adding a hyphen separates them into different syllables and helps with pronunciation.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


A dash can be used to ________ different parts of a sentence and _________ a certain idea within that sentence. 

Show answer

Answer

separate, emphasize

Show question

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