Mastering Hyphens: Deciphering Proper Usage In Writing

Hyphens are an essential aspect of punctuation that often goes overlooked in the world of writing. From compound words to prefixes and suffixes, knowing when and where to use hyphens can greatly impact the clarity and accuracy of your writing. In this article, we will explore the appropriate times for using hyphens in writing, providing a comprehensive guide for writers of all levels. So whether youre a student working on a research paper or a professional crafting an important email, lets dive into the world of hyphens and unlock the secrets to using them effectively.

Appropriate Times for Using Hyphens in Writing

In the English language, hyphens are a type of punctuation used to connect words together. They may seem insignificant, but they play a crucial role in clarifying meaning, avoiding confusion, and improving readability in text. Many writers struggle with when and where to use hyphens, leading to inconsistencies and errors in their writing. However, by understanding the appropriate times for using hyphens, you can elevate your writing and make it more professional and polished.

The Basics: What is a Hyphen?

Before diving into the appropriate times for using hyphens, its essential to understand what a hyphen is. A hyphen (-) is a short horizontal line used to connect two or more words. It may seem similar to a dash, but there are distinct differences. A hyphen is shorter than a dash and is used to combine words, while a dash is longer and has different purposes, such as indicating a pause or introducing additional information.

Now that we have a clear understanding of what a hyphen is lets explore the appropriate times for using them in writing.

Compound Words

The most common use of hyphens is to join compound words. Compound words are two words that are combined to create a new word with a different meaning. For example, "free" and "fall" are two separate words, but when combined, they create the compound word "free-fall," which refers to a rapid descent without propulsion.

Another example of a compound word is "well" and "educated," which combine to create the word "well-educated" meaning having extensive knowledge and training.

Note that when the compound word comes before a noun, it should be hyphenated. For example, "a well-educated individual" or "a free-fall descent."

However, if the compound word comes after a noun, no hyphen is necessary. For instance, "He is highly educated" or "She experienced a free fall."


Hyphens are commonly used with prefixes to avoid confusion or clarify meaning. A prefix is a group of letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning. Some examples of common prefixes include "un," "pre," "re," and "sub."

One of the primary reasons for using hyphens with prefixes is to avoid doubling vowels. For example, without a hyphen, the word "re-entry" can be misread as "reentry," which may lead to confusion. Other examples of prefixes where a hyphen should be used include "anti-aging," "ex-employee," and "co-owner."

Another instance where hyphens are necessary with prefixes is when the prefix comes before a proper noun. For example, "anti-American" or "pro-European."

Compound Adjectives

Compound adjectives are two or more words acting as one adjective to modify a noun. These adjectives are typically hyphenated to ensure clarity and avoid ambiguity. For example, "high-speed train" or "long-term contract."

Without a hyphen, the meaning of the sentence can change, leading to confusion. For instance, "high-speed train" refers to a fast train, while "high speed train" would mean that the train is located at a high altitude.

Other examples of compound adjectives include "well-known author," "blue-eyed girl," and "two-day trip."

Numbers and Fractions

When writing numbers or fractions, hyphens are essential in indicating the relationship between them. Hyphens are usually used with spelled-out fractions or in compound numbers. For example, "two-thirds" or "twenty-five."

Hyphens are also used when writing out dates. For instance, "July 4th, 1776" or "May 2nd, 2021."

Linking Prefixes to Proper Nouns

When a prefix is used to modify a proper noun, it should be connected with a hyphen. This is done to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. For example, "un-American" or "non-profit."

Hyphens are also necessary when the prefix is linked to a capitalized word to prevent ambiguity. For instance, "post-World War II" or "pre-Industrial Revolution."

Compounds Words Created by Combining Words Together

Sometimes, two words are combined to create a compound word with a new meaning. In such cases, hyphens are necessary to indicate that the two words are being combined. For example, "baseball-sized" or "fire-breathing."

Without the hyphen, the meaning could be confusing. For instance, without a hyphen, "baseball-sized" could be interpreted as "a baseball that is sized" rather than "the size of a baseball."

When NOT to Use Hyphens

While there are many cases where hyphens are necessary, there are also instances where they should not be used. These include:

  • With proper nouns: Proper nouns, such as names of people or places, should not be hyphenated.
  • With adverbs ending in -ly: Adverbs ending in -ly should not be hyphenated, even when combined with an adjective. For example, "happily married" or "poorly written."
  • In compound words that have become commonly used and accepted without hyphens: Some compound words, such as "email" or "background," have become commonly used and accepted without hyphens. In this case, its best to consult a dictionary or style guide to ensure consistency.

When to Use Hyphens in Writing: A Quick Reference Guide

Situation Example
Compound words free-fall, well-educated
Prefixes re-entry, anti-aging
Compound adjectives long-term, high-speed
Numbers and fractions two-thirds, twenty-five
Linking prefixes to proper nouns pre-Industrial Revolution, non-profit
Compounds created by combining words together baseball-sized, fire-breathing

As a general rule of thumb, hyphens should be used to avoid confusion, clarify meaning, and improve readability in writing.


In conclusion, hyphens may seem like a minor aspect of writing, but they play a crucial role in ensuring clarity and consistency. By understanding the appropriate times for using hyphens, you can elevate your writing and make it more professional and polished. Remember to consult a dictionary or style guide when in doubt, and always proofread your work to ensure consistency and accuracy.

If you want to improve your writing skills further, check out this article on the top 10 soft skills you should study from college. Good luck!

In conclusion, using hyphens in writing may seem like a trivial matter, but it can greatly impact the clarity and correctness of our written language. It is important to know when and how to use hyphens appropriately in order to avoid confusion and maintain consistency. Remember to use hyphens for compound words, prefixes, and numbers and always consult a style guide for specific guidelines. By following these simple rules, we can ensure that our writing is clear, professional, and grammatically correct. So the next time youre unsure about whether or not to use a hyphen, remember these tips and use them with confidence. Happy writing!


  • ewanpatel

    I'm a 29-year-old educational bloger and teacher. I have been writing about education for about six years, and I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Cruz. I also have a M.A. in English from San Francisco State University. I teach high school English in the Bay Area.