Hyphen in English: Rules and Examples

How to Use a Hyphen Correctly

How to use a hyphen correctly, rules, examples

Learning English requires not only knowledge of words and grammar but also an understanding of punctuation rules. Today, we will examine one of the frequently used marks in English – the hyphen. Typically, hyphens in English are used to join words or parts of words together. They are not interchangeable with different types of dashes. Hyphens are often used for:

  1. Forming compound words
    • Examples: well-known, part-time, short-term
  2. Combining adjectives before a noun
    • Examples: state-of-the-art technology, full-time job, English-speaking countries
  3. Avoiding confusion between words
    • Example: re-sign a contract (to sign again) vs resign (to quit a job)
  4. Compound numbers
    • Examples: twenty-five, sixty-three
  5. Creating compound words with prefixes or suffixes
    • Examples: ex-husband, anti-war, re-evaluate

Additionally, hyphens are used in certain cases to represent ranges, such as a range of years (2010-2015) or a range of pages (pp. 24-32).

It is important to note that in the English language, there are specific rules regarding the use of hyphens, which may differ from the rules in other languages. Therefore, when learning English, it is crucial to pay close attention to the usage of this punctuation mark. Let’s take a closer look at what a hyphen is and the rules for its use.

What is a Hyphen?

A hyphen (-) is a short horizontal line used to join words or parts of words together. The hyphen is a small but important punctuation mark in English that can change the meaning of words and sentences. Improper use of the hyphen can lead to misunderstandings or alter the intended meaning. Let’s examine the main rules for its use.

Basic rules for using the hyphen in English

1. Compound Adjectives

If two or more words together act as a single compound adjective before a noun, they are usually joined by a hyphen.


  • a five-year-old boy
  • a well-known author
  • state-of-the-art technology

2. Compound Nouns

Some compound nouns, especially those consisting of more than two words, are often joined by a hyphen.


  • mother-in-law
  • merry-go-round
  • runner-up

3. Prefixes

A hyphen is typically used with certain prefixes such as ex-, self-, all-, anti- before nouns and adjectives, as well as before proper nouns.


  • ex-president
  • all-inclusive
  • self-aware
  • anti-nuclear
  • un-American

4. Doubled Words or Numbers

To avoid confusion, repeated words or numbers are often joined by a hyphen.


  • fifty-five
  • she-she
  • a hi-hi (a laugh)

5. Numbers and Age

  • Numbers: Hyphens are used in compound numbers.
    • Example: Sixty-three.
    • Example: Twenty-one.
  • Age: When stating age as a compound adjective before a noun.
    • Example: A ten-year-old boy.

6. Doubled Vowels or Consonants to Avoid Confusion

A hyphen is used to distinguish compound words or to avoid ambiguity.

  • Example: Re-sign (to sign again) vs. resign (to quit)
  • Example: Re-elect.
  • Example: Re-enter.

7. Phrasal Verbs Used as Nouns

A hyphen can change the meaning of a phrasal verb when used as a noun. Depending on whether a hyphen is used or not, the meaning can change, for example:

  • Example: “break-in” (an intrusion) compared to “break in” (to intrude).

Exceptions and additional cases with a hyphen in English

The use of hyphens in English has its exceptions and specific cases that require special attention. Let’s look at a few of them, which will help you avoid mistakes and improve your knowledge of English.

No hyphen used with “very” and words Ending in -ly: Adjectives formed with adverbs ending in -ly or using the word “very” usually do not require a hyphen, even when they precede a noun.


  • Highly respected person (not highly-respected)
  • Very well known artist (not very-well-known)

Combining with latin and greek prefixes: Most words with Latin and Greek prefixes are written without a hyphen.


  • Antioxidant (not anti-oxidant)
  • Microeconomics (not micro-economics)

Compound names of languages and nationalities: Compound names of languages and nationalities are often written without a hyphen.


  • English speaking (not English-speaking)
  • French Canadian (not French-Canadian)

Tips for Using Hyphens

  • Consider the context: Always pay attention to the meaning of the phrase to determine whether a hyphen is needed.
  • Use a dictionary: If in doubt, check the correct usage of the hyphen in reliable dictionaries.
  • Practice: The more you practice and read, the better you’ll understand and apply the rules for using hyphens in English.
  • Pay attention to compound words: Hyphens are often needed in compound words to combine separate words and avoid confusion. For example: well-known, mother-in-law, full-time.
  • Maintain consistency: Within a single document, it’s preferable to use one approach – either with hyphens or without them for certain words.
  • Consider potential ambiguity: A hyphen helps prevent ambiguity between words. For example, re-sign (to sign again) and resign (to quit).
  • Update your knowledge: The rules for using hyphens may change over time, so periodically update your knowledge according to current standards.
  • Use spell-checking: Modern word processors often underline missing hyphens in compound words. Don’t ignore these prompts.
  • Follow style guidelines: If you’re writing for a specific publisher or organization, follow their style guidelines for using hyphens.

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