Everything you ever wanted to know about HYPHENS but were afraid to ask

Read the following sentence, and try to determine exactly what it means:

He was a man eating shark.


Is it a shark that eats humans? Or is it a man who is eating shark meat?

The example above is a man who eats shark meat, because there is no hyphen.

He was a man-eating shark is a shark that eats humans, and we know this because “man-eating” is hyphenated, thus describing the kind of shark it is.

So what exactly are the rules to using hyphens?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive guide for hyphen usage. Different style manuals show different guidelines, and hyphen usage has changed over the years. Words that previously were hyphenated no longer require hyphenation. In 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed the hyphens from 16,000 entries. With the advent of computer technology, words that were previously hyphenated now are one word, such as hyperlink and toolbar. However, use of the hyphen is still required for compound adjective constructions, the most common use of hyphens.

Uses of a Hyphen

Use a hyphen in a compound adjective beginning with an adverb. Spaces are not used between the hyphen and the words it is separating:

Best-known work
American-football player
Ill-prepared student
Well-liked celebrity

In the examples above, two words are working together to describe, or modify, the noun that follows it. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether the writer means a “work that is best known” or “known work that is best,” or whether the writer means a “player of American football” or an “American player of football.”

Be careful of where the compound adjectives are in the sentence. If the compound adjective comes after the noun, DO NOT hyphenate it:

The work was the composer’s best known.
The player of American football scored a field goal.
The student was ill prepared.
 The celebrity was well liked.

Hyphenated compound adjectives can include multiple words, such as flavor-of-the-month club or ice-cream-flavored candy.


Use hyphens when connecting numbers and words in modifying phrases, such as age, weight or measurements, regardless of whether you write the number out in words or use numerals:

50-year-old man

Fifty-year-old man

300-foot tower

Three-hundred-foot tower

Line Breaks

When typing text, sometimes it is preferable to break a long, multi-syllable word apart at the end of a line rather than leave a large white space. A hyphen is used at a syllable break point to allow the word to be broken apart and run onto the next line:

Although writers of research
papers should include paren-
thetical references, they also
need a Works Cited page.

When NOT to use Hyphens

When using familiar compound terms, avoid hyphens between the familair terms:

Social security tax
high school reunion

What is the difference between a hyphen and dash?

The most common use of a hyphen is between two words in a compound adjective. The dash – or em dash – is not the same as a hyphen; it acts as a sharp break within a sentence, like the example in the previous sentence. 

On most word processing programs, typing two hyphen automatically convert into a longer dash. You can also hit “Control” and “-” (the minus key) at the same time on the number pad of a keyboard to create a dash. Creative writers and poets often use dashes for effect. Emily Dickinson is known as Miss Dash, as she used an abundance of dashes in her poetry, as shown in “Hope” is a Thing with Feathers:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –  

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –  

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me. 

Note that the dashes are separated from the surrounding words by spaces, unlike hyphens.

Remember to always refer to a style manual if you’re not sure what requires hyphenation. Now that you know everything about hyphens, test yourself or your classmates. Look at the hyphens in the following examples. They each have to same words, but each means something different. Do you know the difference?

Five-hundred-year-old trees

Five hundred-year-old trees

Five-hundred year-old trees



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