How to Use Hyphens (Definitely One for Fellow Word Nerds)

I write for a living but I certainly don’t know every single grammatical rule.

My grammar is pretty good and it’s probably better than most people’s (I hope) but there are some aspects of the English language that trip me up. Take hyphens for example.

Like all grammar and punctuation, hyphens exist to make writing clearer so that the reader gets the writer’s exact meaning but using them correctly can be complicated.

And it’s not just me. Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves) says that:

“Hyphen usage is a bloody big mess and is likely to get messier… fifty years ago it was correct to hyphenate Oxford Street as ‘Oxford-Street’ and tomorrow as ‘to-morrow'”.

I’m reading a 1918 English translation of Anna Karenina at the moment and it uses “to-day” and “to-morrow” instead of today and tomorrow, that shows you just how quickly language evolves.

Two more recent examples are email and website. What was once called ‘electronic mail’ became ‘e-mail’ and now it’s just ’email’, though you still see e-mail from time to time in a few old-school publications. And website started life as ‘web site’, which became ‘web-site’ and now it’s ‘website’ pretty much everywhere.

Hyphen usage is one of the many ways that British and American English have deviated. Americans have a very simple way of using them, according to Craig Shrives (who wrote Grammar for Grown-Ups) you should:

“Use a hyphen if it eliminates ambiguity or helps your reader, else don’t bother”.

So if you’re in the States you can stop reading now. If you’re in the UK, read on.

Lynne points out that back in 1930, Fowler’s Modern English Usage suggested that people shouldn’t use a hyphen “wherever reasonable” and in 2003 the Oxford English Dictionary was predicting the hyphen’s demise but they’re still here.

Below is a quick guide I’ve put together based on the two books I’ve mentioned (Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and Grammar for Grown-Ups by Craig Shrives – both are available on Amazon if you want to get yourself a copy).

When and How to Use Hyphens:

1. For numbers between 21 and 99

Different style guides and writers have different rules about writing numbers but many of us copywriters write one to nine in words, and use digits for numbers from ten upwards. UNLESS you’re writing a sentence that includes numbers below and above ten, in which case you stick to one format (as in the previous sentence where I wrote them out).

If you are writing numbers between 21 and 99, use a hyphen.

For example: twenty-three cakes, sixty-two days, ninety-nine red balloons.

2. To avoid ambiguity

This is a good common sense rule: use a hyphen when you need to combine two words to get your meaning across.

For example: a cross section of the public is not the same thing as a cross-section of the public. And the Rolling Stones are re-forming means something very different from them reforming and changing their ways.

3 To make compound adjectives and compound nouns

You use hyphens to tie words together to make adjectives or nouns with more than one word. So, you say three pages but a three-page document, stainless steel but a stainless-steel kitchen.

Other examples: English-Saudi relations, the London-Glasgow train, a three-legged dog, a four-bedroom house.

4. With prefixes when you can’t make a single word

You can often combine a prefix with the noun or adjective that follows it to make one word, such as ultraviolet, prehistoric, premenstrual and antenatal, but when you can’t, insert a hyphen between the two.

For example: anti-establishment, pro-democracy, un-British, quasi-intellectual, ex-Minister, post-apocalypse.

5. To spell out a word

If you’re writing how a word is spelt use hyphens to separate the letters.

For example: H-Y-P-H-E-N.

6. To avoid ugly words

For example: it’s de-ice not deice, re-enter rather than reenter and shell-like instead of shelllike. Eugh.

7. When a sentence runs on to the next line

You don’t see words at the end of a line chopped into two very often online (though the Financial Times and the BBC do it I’ve noticed), you tend to come across it more in print. Where you do see it, a hyphen indicates that the word continues on the next line.

For example: the last word on this line should be stradd-
ling two lines and needs a hyphen to show that it continues on the next line.

8. To indicate stammering in speech

It’s unlikely we’ll need it but just so you know.

For example: I was g-g-g-g-going to tell you this frightening story.

As language evolves so quickly some of the confusion around hyphens may always be around but I hope these rules help.

Over to you, do you struggle with hyphens or any other aspect of grammar? Or is yours perfect? Feel free to leave me a comment.


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