Connect
To Top

    Punctuation Rules for Hyphens in Written English

    Punctuation Rules for Hyphens in Written English

    Punctuation marks, as a convention of written language, function to ensure the clarity of writing for readers and writers. There are seven rules for using hyphens as punctuation marks in written American English:

    • With affixes
    • In compound nouns
    • In coequal nouns
    • In compound modifiers
    • In phrasal modifiers
    • In numbers
    • To avoid confusion and misreading

    The following sections explain and provide examples of the punctuation rules for hyphens in written English.

    Affixes

    HyphenUse a hyphen between certain prefixes and suffixes such as all-, anti-, -elect, ex-, mid-, neo-, non-, post-, pre-, pro-, and self- and a noun. For example:

    • all-inclusive
    • ex-husband
    • non-English
    • president-elect

    Use a hyphen between the prefixes anti-, mid-, neo-, post-, pre-, and pro- and a proper noun or number. For example:

    • anti-Christian
    • mid-1990s
    • neo-Nazism
    • post-colonialism

    Usually use a hyphen between a prefix and a noun when the last letter of the prefix is the same as the first letter of the noun. For example:

    • anti-immigrant
    • de-emphasize
    • re-emerge
    • semi-independent

    Do not use a hyphen with most other prefixes and suffixes. When in doubt, check a dictionary for standard hyphen use.

    Compound Nouns

    Use a hyphen in some compound nouns. For example:

    • court-martial
    • father-in-law
    • merry-go-round
    • T-shirt

    When in doubt, consult a dictionary to determine if a compound noun requires a hyphen.

    Coequal Nouns

    Use a hyphen to join two or more coequal nouns. Coequal nouns are defined as pairs of nouns that are equal in function. For example:

    • singer-songwriter
    • teacher-poet
    • actor-director
    • writer-illustrator

    Do not use a hyphen to join two or more nouns in which the first noun functions as a noun phrase modifier of the second noun.

    Compound Modifiers

    Use a hyphen to join compound noun phrase modifiers that precede a noun especially when (1) adverbs such as better, best, ill, lower, little, and well modify an adjective, (2) the second word is a present participle or past participle of a verb, and (3) the compound modifier contains a number. For example:

    • blue-collar worker
    • self-fulfilling prophecy
    • ill-prepared student
    • well-behaved toddler
    • forth-floor office
    • sports-hating aunt

    Do not use a hyphen to join compound noun phrase modifiers that follow the noun. Also do not use a hyphen to join an adjective to an adverb ending in -ly or to the adverbs too, very, or much.

    Phrasal Modifiers

    Use a hyphen to separate words in a phrase that is functioning as a noun phrase modifier that precedes a noun. For example:

    • The cruise ship offers an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.
    • Childbirth can be an out-of-this-world experience.
    • My doctor prescribed me an over-the-counter medication.
    • He has a stronger-than-he-looks outlook on life.

    Numbers

    Use a hyphen in the number between twenty-one and ninety-nine. For example:

    • twenty-two
    • thirty-seven
    • fifty-nine
    • ninety-eight

    Use a hyphen to separate the numerator from the denominator in a fraction. For example:

    • one-half
    • three-fourths
    • nine-sixteenths
    • twelve-thirty-sevenths

    Avoiding Confusion

    Use a hyphen to avoid confusion and misreading including awkward letter combinations. For example:

    • un-ionized (not ionized instead of unionized)
    • re-sign (sign again instead of resign)
    • Spanish-speaking student (student who speaks Spanish, not a student from Spain who speaks)
    • one-week vacation (vacation that is a week long, not a single week-long vacation)

    Punctuation marks are a convention of written language that helps readers and writers more clearly understand writing by ensuring the clarity of writing. Hyphens perform seven basic functions in written American English: with affixes, in compound nouns, in coequal nouns, in compound modifiers, in phrasal modifiers, in numbers, and to avoid confusion and misreading.

    References

    Faigley, Lester. 2003. The Brief Penguin Handbook. New York: Pearson Longman.
    Gibaldi, Joseph. 2003. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

    More in Information

    • Word Matrix: Galact

      <galact> “milk, milky” from Greek gala (genitive galaktos, stem galakt-) “milk” Word Sums Galact + ic -> galactic Extra + Galact...

      Heather JohnsonJune 17, 2019
    • Using Verbs and Verb Phrases as Adjunct Adverbials

      Notional grammars traditionally verbs as “words that denote actions and states of being.” A verb phrase consists of a verb plus...

      Heather JohnsonJune 15, 2019
    • Word Matrix: Cat

      <cat> “feline” from Old English catt Words Sums Cat Cat + s -> cats Cat + ed -> catted Cat +...

      Heather JohnsonJune 6, 2019
    • Adjectives Versus Verbs: Participial Adjectives

      As I have written many times before, the line between grammatical forms is blurry at best, especially among lexical categories like...

      Heather JohnsonJune 4, 2019
    • Word Matrix: Pter

      <pter> “feather, wing” from Greek pteron Word Sums Pter + ide + ine -> pteridine Pter + ide + ine +...

      Heather JohnsonMay 28, 2019