University of Houston-Victoria

University College

Using Hyphens Correctly

Author/Creation:  Paige  Ruschhaupt, January 2010.
Summary:  Discusses when writers should  use hyphens in compound words and  prefixes.
Learning Objectives: To describe  the difference  between  dashes  and  hyphens.  To use hyphens correctly in compound adjectives, nouns, and  verbs and  with  numbers and  fractions.  To avoid using  hyphens with adverbs.   To use hyphens with prefixes  correctly.  To use hyphens to avoid ambiguity.

 

Many  people think that dashes  and  hyphens are the same,  but,  in fact,  dashes  are used to structure sentences, while hyphens are used to connect the parts of compound words and between  some prefixes  and  root  words.  This handout will focus on the main  rules  for using hyphens when it comes to compound words and  prefixes.  We should  warn  you here, though—to know when to use hyphens, you’ll often  need a dictionary.

 

Hyphens between Compound Words
First, let’s take  a look at when to use hyphens in compound words. Hyphens are used between adjectives, nouns, and verbs to create compound words,  but  there  are some rules  you should consider as you determine whether and  when to use a hyphen.

 

Compound Adjectives
Compound adjectives are defined  as two or more words that are combined to express a new idea or concept  (e.g., in a pistol-packing mama, pistol-packing is the compound adjective). A compound adjective can be made up of combinations of any part  of speech—a  combination of words that, together, act as an adjective—like long term in long-term practice or candy cane in candy-cane lane.

 

In  order  to determine if a hyphen is needed,  you must first consider  how the adjectives relate  to each other. When adjectives act independently, do not  hyphenate.

 

The  best way to determine if the adjectives  act independently is to try to put  the word and between  the adjectives. If the adjectives  do not  work individually with  and between  them, there should  be a hyphen.

For  example,  if you put  and between  pistol and packing in pistol-packing mama,  it would not  make  sense—you  can’t  say pistol mama or

packing mama (pistol and  packing don’t individually modify  relationship). Other examples:  mass-produced game, high-level  discussion, long-term relationship

Additionally, notice  you need a hyphen only if the compound adjective  appears before the noun (adjective-adjective noun). If the adjectives  come after  the noun, they are not  hyphenated. If the wording  of long-term relationship is changed  to a relationship that was long term, long term should not  be hyphenated.

 

Compound Nouns
Some compound nouns do not  use hyphens and  some do. Unfortunately, there  is no definite rule to follow when it comes to hyphenating compound nouns. The  best way to decide when to

use a hyphen in compound nouns is to look up the word in the dictionary. If the compound noun  is not found  in the dictionary, most  often  the words should  not  be hyphenated. If the dictionary indicates the words should  be hyphenated, then  make  sure you hyphenate the words.

 

Ex. Mother-of-pearl, father-in-law

 

Compound Verbs
Like compound nouns, compound verbs are tricky because some are hyphenated, and some are not.  Again,  the best way to decide whether to use a hyphen is to look the word up in the dictionary. If it is not  in the dictionary, hyphenate it,  and  if it is in the dictionary, spell it as the dictionary requires.

 

Ex.   To double-track, to sun-dry

 

Adverbs
You should  never use a hyphen after  an adverb that ends in –ly. Ex. Slowly moving  vehicle, utterly useless  idea

Numbers
Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine should  be hyphenated when words (as opposed  to numbers) are used.  Also, fractions should  be hyphenated when they are spelled  out.

 

Ex. Forty-two, two-thirds

 

Prefixes and Hyphens
This last section  will discuss  when to use a hyphen with  prefixes.  These  prefix rules  are generally  more straightforward than other  hyphen rules.

 

Proper Nouns
If there  is a prefix before a proper  noun, you should  use a hyphen between  the two. Ex. Pre-Raphaelite, non-English

Vowels
When the prefix ends in a, e, i, or u, and  the root  word begins  with  the same vowel, the word should  be hyphenated, but always consult a dictionary to make  sure.

 

Ex. Co-op, anti-intellectual

 

When the prefix ends with  a vowel, and  the root  word begins  with  a different vowel, you don’t  need to hyphenate (like reaction). The  best way to find  out whether a word should  be hyphenated is to look it up in the dictionary.

 

Specific Prefixes
There are several prefixes  that are always hyphenated, like self, ex, and  all. When a word starts with  self, ex, or all, it should be hyphenated unless  the word is selfish or selfless.

 

Ex. Self-righteous, ex-wife, all-important

 

Ambiguity
You should  use a hyphen when the absence of a hyphen would result in ambiguity and confusion. Some words are hyphenated to clarify meaning, like the words recreation and  re- creation.  Although these  words contain the same letters, they have two different meanings, which the hyphen helps  to distinguish.  Additionally, some phrases are hyphenated to ensure that the proper  meaning is conveyed.   For  example,  a hyphen could be used to clarify the phrase old car dealer. Including a hyphen between  the first  two words (old-car dealer) indicates that the cars the dealer sells are old.   Without the hyphen, the word old could refer to the dealer’s age.

 

Ex. Compare remark and re-mark; Compare two foot stools and two-foot stools

 

Practice Exercises
This review will test  your understanding of how to use hyphens by using  them  in the sentences below.

 

1.   The  note-book that I write my notes  in is gone.

2.   When I think of poets who are well-known, I generally  think of Robert  Frost, Emily Dickinson, and  Edgar Allan Poe.

3.   The  quickly-moving rumors about  the expansion of the university ended  up being true.

4.   The  father  of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, died of cancer  at the age of eighty  three.

5.   I wanted  to make a re-mark about  her dissertation on positive  psychology  strategies, but I did not  want  to offend her.

6.   The  Rosenberg  Self-Esteem Scale measures subjects’  level of self esteem.

7.   One good study  tip  you might want to use is to color code one highlighter to one subject.

8.   During the Civil War, the South was proslavery, while the North started to think that slavery was unAmerican.

9.   The  job seeker decided  to deemphasize his lack of experience  in writing reports.

10. While tutoring the document, the tutor found  that Mary’s  paragraphs were well- developed.

11. Her  sister  in law wanted to find  more information on how to format a resume, so she went to the Academic  Center website.

12. In  Nick’s story,  the main  character Sonny  was a colorful  pink  bird  with  a 25  foot wing span.

13. The  lovely-shy woman  could not  find any research  for her research project on symbolism in Walt Whitman’s poems.

14. The  fur lined  coat was extremely expensive.

15. The  mid year report revealed  that the viewers for the TV show Bones were increasing.

16. James  Cameron’s film Avatar became the top grossing  picture in 2009.

17. Robert  was still  good friends  with his ex father in law—they  went fishing  frequently.

18. The  potato salad needed  to be recovered.

19. Writing tutors often  undergo extra  training to help nonEnglish speaking students improve  their  writing skills.

20. Many  students are often  surprised by the number of free blacks or people of color in the pre Civil War South.

 

Answers

 

1.   The  notebook that I write my notes  in is gone.

2.   When I think of poets who are well known,  I generally  think of Robert  Frost, Emily Dickinson, and  Edgar Allan Poe.

3.   The  quickly  moving  rumors about  the expansion of the university ended  up being true.

4.   The  father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, died of cancer  at the age of eighty-three.

5.   I wanted  to make a remark about  her dissertation on positive  psychology strategies, but  I did not want to offend her.

6.   The  Rosenberg  Self-Esteem Scale measures subjects’  level of self-esteem.

7.   One good study tip  you might want to use is to color code one highlighter to one subject.

8.   During the Civil War, the South was pro-slavery, while the North started to think that slavery was un-American.

9.   The  job seeker decided  to de-emphasize his lack of experience  in writing reports.

10. While tutoring the document, the tutor found  that Mary  had well-developed  paragraphs.

11. Her  sister-in-law wanted  to find  more information on how to format a resume, so she went to the Academic  Center website.

12. In  Nick’s story,  the main  character Sonny  was a colorful  pink  bird  with  a 25-foot wing span.

13. The  lovely, shy woman  could not  find any research  for her research project  on symbolism in Walt Whitman’s poems.

14. The  fur-lined coat was extremely expensive.

15. The  mid-year  report revealed  that the viewers for the TV show Bones were increasing.

16. James  Cameron’s film Avatar became the top-grossing picture in 2009.

17. Robert  was still  good friends  with his ex-father-in-law—they went fishing  frequently.

18. The  potato salad needed  to be re-covered.

19. Writing tutors often  undergo extra  training to help non-English-speaking students improve  their  writing skills.

20. Many  students are often  surprised by the number of free blacks in the pre-Civil  War South.