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This is how and why hyphens are used in English.

By 14 November 2018Language Tips

Hyphens add clarity for the reader

What is a hyphen (-)?

  • A hyphen is a punctuation mark that primarily joins words or parts of words
  • You can use hyphens when writing compound modifiers when it comes before the word it’s changing
  • Dictionaries are the best place to find out whether a word needs a hyphen or not!

Are you using hyphens?

The primary use of hyphens during formal writing is to show that the linked words should be read together as one unit of meaning.

We call these compound modifiers and they help avoid confusion for the reader.

Here are some more examples:

  • self-induced
  • well-established
  • 10-minute intervals
  • check-up

Choosing when to you a hyphen can be complex and involves quite a few rules. 

When to use a hyphen?

Compound modifiers are two words that work together to change the meaning of the noun that follows. Let’s look at an example:

  • Incorrect: In six days, we will move you to 10 minute sessions.

The sentence above is unclear: Does it mean 10 sessions, one minute long or sessions 10 minutes long?

  • Correct: In six days, we will move you to 10-minute sessions.

By adding the hyphen, the compound modifier becomes clear to your audience!

When should I not use a hyphen?

Compound nouns such as ice cream, lifestyle and even weekend have lost their hyphens over the years to become two separate words or one combined word. These are called closed and open compound words.

Here are some examples of closed compound words:

  • Notebook
  • Waistcoat
  • Fireman
  • Healthcare

Here are some examples of open compound words:

  • Sweet tooth
  • High school
  • Dinner table
  • Coffee mug

Numbers are often hyphenated as well, especially before a noun such as ‘a 59-year-old male’.

How can I practise using hyphens?

It’s super easy to practise using hyphens. You can do this when you’re reading or take some time to work on it specifically.

Hyphen usage is something to notice when you are reading. Make note of words which are written with a hyphen and build up a list you can refer to for reference.

You can also use a dictionary to check the spelling of particular words.

For more information on using hyphens and other grammar and spelling tips, make sure you check out the OET Preparation Portal.