Many people struggle to achieve mastery of the hyphen. Sure, they know how to use commas, colons, and semicolons, but the hyphen seems so much more mysterious. Well, let’s break down what exactly a hyphen is and how you can use this incredibly versatile tool in your own writing.
What Is a Hyphen?
Hyphens are punctuation marks used in words to show where one word ends and another word begins. They are also used when adding two or more words together for emphasis (e.g., “having-to-be-perfect”).
The hyphen is actually a combination of two small lines (‐) used when writing in both the English language and the Japanese language.
Origins of the Hyphen
It is thought that the word “hyphen” originated from the Dutch word “hyphae”, which was used prior to the 17th century to describe a ligature or a series of letters tied together.
The first use of an actual hyphen was in 1582 by French grammarian Dominique Pariseau, who described it as “a dash written below.”
However, this was not its official name until the mid-17th century when British printers began using it consistently.
When To Use a Hyphen
You should use a hyphen in the following cases:
1. Compound adjectives – These are adjective phrases that describe a noun. For example, “an easy-to-use law” or “a well-known politician.” You should always place a hyphen between the adjective and the noun it modifies (e.g., “She is well known for her political involvement and charitable contributions.”). Note that if you have two adjectives describing the same noun, you should only use one hyphen between them (e.g., “an easy-to-understand law”).
2. Compound words – These are two separate words that have been combined. For example, “roof-top” or “pop-up.” Note that compound words always need to have a hyphen between them (e.g., “soup bowl” is incorrect, but “soup-bowl” is okay).
3. En dash – This is used when you want to indicate a range of values. It should be used instead of a comma or colon for this purpose (e.g., “2007–2008 were her best years” or “Her best years were 2007–2008.”).
When Hyphens Are Not Needed
1. Adjectives that form a double negative – For example, “Not-so-good news.” If you are using one or two adjectives to describe a noun, it is best to place a space between them instead of a hyphen (e.g., “The poor-health patient is unable to work.”).
2. Prefixes that end in vowels – Words such as “re-” or “ex-” are often mistaken for hyphens, but this is not the case. A hyphen (-) should always be placed before these prefixes (e.g., “a re-elected official” or “an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend.”).
3. Headings – Hyphens are often used in headings to separate the elements of a sentence. However, if you are using a hyphen to separate letters within the heading, it should be considered an error rather than a proper hyphen (e.g., “They name their first child Louisa Margaret.”). For double-hyphens, one should always be placed before and after the other (e.g., “a-Vance, Avis & Abigail Vance v. the United States of America”).
Hyphen vs. Dash
The hyphen is often confused with the dash (—). Although both are used to connect words, they have different functions. A hyphen (-) should be used with compound nouns and to separate syllables when you are adding suffixes or prefixes to a word (e.g., “post-apocalyptic” or “re-elect Smith”).
A dash is used much in the same way as a comma in that it is used to indicate a pause within a sentence (e.g. “The president of the firm – Smith, Mary, Susan, and Dina – all approve of the new policy.”).
Now you know how to use a hyphen!
Hyphen | Infographic
How to Use a Hyphen