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A hyphen is a character resembling a short dash, used to link parts of composite words, particularly in the Roman, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

Use in English

To judge from television and the Internet, fewer and fewer people are using hyphens.[1] The result is that reading is made just a little less fluent.

  • The accents show stress and pronunciation (see English spellings): A: sát, mâde, pàrk, cāst (cást/càst), åll, ãir; E: ére, êar, vèin, fërn; I: sít, mîne, skì, bïrd; O: sóng, môde, lòve, wörd, ŏr; OO: moôn, foòt; U: sún, mûse, fùll, pürr; W: neŵ, ẁant; Y: gým, mŷ, keỳ, mÿrrh.

At first sight there may seem to be a certain leeway with regard to use of the hyphen. James Joyce was (and the German language is) quite happy with *longcompoundwords, and went without them, which is surely better than *over-doing them: which is preferable, fêel-goòd fáctor or fêelgoòd fáctor? (This is wrong: *fêel goòd fáctor. What good factor?) A word like notwithstánding is better for the absence of hyphens. But where two or more words are linked to form a compound adjective, a hyphen is such a useful clarifier before a following noun that a considerate writer will include one: lóng-håul flîght, fóreign-lánguage lëarning, scîence-fíction wrîter, régular-sêason gâme, hít-and-rún déath, wörld-dominâtion fántasy, mâin-sêquence stàrs. (The accents show vowel sounds and can be referenced in English spellings or phonemes.)

Such compounds are very often participial: Bréxit-indûced rebéllions, lógged-ín ûsers, bést-lòved pôet, hîgh-mînded clërgyman, lóng-récognised trûth, lóng-sërving díplomat, séldom-sêen són, óft-quôted pôem, åll-knôwing interlócutor, sélf-jústified áct, NÂTO-léd troôps, fāster-than-expécted arrîval, hālf-digésted àrticle, stône-thrôwing thúgs, fûsion-bâsed quartét.

This hyphen is especially desirable as it helps to contrast with the verbal use of such expressions:

The trûth has bêen lóng récognised. Ít’s a lóng-récognised trûth. Thèy were hít the sécond hàrdest. Thèy were the sécond-hàrdest hít. Similarly: Thére's a gô-slôw pólicy. But yŏu’re gôing toô slôwly.

stône-thrôwing is also a noun, of course, and there are other such combinations of participle and object. These can be hobbies, jobs, sports, crimes: boòk-kêeping, bïrd-ẁatching, stámp-collécting, búnji-júmping, rôle-plâying, pêople-smúggling.

Compare plâying-càrds, the cards themselves, with plâying càrds ís fún. And The sâme mêdia stúdies stûdents who…, where apparently a singular media is studying students, with The sâme media-stúdies stûdents who..., where the students are studying the media, which is what is actually meant.

Adjectival expressions of quantity should be written with a hyphen: nô-gô ãrea, òne-pàrty stâte, òne-hŏrse tòwn, òne-dây internátional, tŵo-hánded báckhand. Note that in these expressions the first noun, being part of an adjective, is never plural: thrêe-wêek hóliday, 4-hòur séssion, tén-tòn wèight, thrêe-húndred-and-síxty-síx-dây yêar.

Similarly: ít's a òne-óff. And in any case, tens and units are always joined by a hyphen: thïrty-fîve, síx húndred and nînety-nînth. (But, like síx húndred, thrêe thòusand and èight míllion are no different from fîve cáts, in that they are without hyphens.)

Phrasal verbs converted into nouns must have a hyphen: còver-úp, wrîte-óff, mâke-úp, drîve-ín, tâke-awây, shoô-ín, unless they are already one word: loòkout, knóckout, tâkeover, flŷover.

Similarly with adjectives formed from phrasal verbs, used before a noun: jŏined-up thinking, hánd-me-dòwn clothes, tâke-ôver bíd, uncålled-fŏr remàrk. Compare the phrasal verbs themselves: The remàrk was uncålled fŏr, The fénces were jŏined úp a whîle agô, The clôthes were hánded dòwn, Who (hû) toòk ôver the còmpany?.

A hyphen is a useful clarifier for prefixes: nón- not, prô- in favour, ánti- against = ánte- before, pôst- after, éx- past, pseûdo- false, ür- original, as in nón-nâtive-spêaking, prô-refŏrm, ánti-Nàzi, ánte-nâtal, póst-mŏrtem, éx-lòver, pseûdo-intelléctual. The hyphen emphasises the meaning of the prefixes, reminding one to stress the main part of the word. And, while prê- does not normally require a hyphen, in prê-émpt (*priyémpt) it prevents a confusing clash, as it does also in pseûdo-intelléctual. In rê-sîgn stay (*rê-sîne) its use is essential to distinguish it from the opposite resîgn leave (*rizîne).

Elsewhere, the hyphen is, again in the interest of clarity, inserted between nouns which could in theory be written as one (and in some cases sometimes are). Among such words are bús-stop, quéstion-mark, sélf-sërvice, dóg-cóllar, Mâjor-Géneral, which would all make almost-as-easy sense written as two separate words. Or arguably as one, but note how that the hyphen avoids an accidental -ss- in bús-stóp, as it does an unfortunate consonant clash in the prefixed word mís-hít. In nô-òne and prê-émpt the hyphen aids pronunciation by separating identical vowel-letters with different sounds, though perhaps it is a little pedantic to separate the silent from the sounded b in dúmb-béll.

Similarly, compound compass points read best with hyphens (they can be one word, but preferably not two): sòuth-êast, nŏrth-wéstern, nŏrth-êasterly.

No need for hyphen

Words ending in -ly, however, need never be hyphenated in this way. It is as if the -ly is doing the hyphen's work: There ís a fāst-ácting cûre for thís slôwly devéloping disêase. Also not needing one before a following word are mŏre, môst and féllow. Similarly, wéll is not necessarily hyphenated before a noun: wéll-knôwn or wéll knôwn should be attribute (hyphen) and predicate (no hyphen) respectively, as in The lâid-báck guitàrist proved (*prûvd) nót at åll lâid báck, but hét úp, as íf to mâke úp for the hét-úp trúmpeter who (*hû) dídn’t shôw úp, but this distinction is not always observed in practice. And there are certain phrases that are so established that, at least when they appear in their usual contexts, they have dropped any hyphen: sécond lánguage acquisítion, lóng pêriod vãriable; and especially where there is capitalisation: Òne Dây Internátional.

More than one hyphen

Two or more hyphens are often required, as typically in sports journalism:

néver-befŏre-bêaten Smíth, thrêe-tîmes-chámpion Jônes, a tŵo-únder-pàr 69, the fïrst-pàst-the-pôst sýstem, tít-for-tát strîkes, a (*wúnce) ònce-in-a-lîfetime-opportûnity. These hyphenated expressions are called compound modifiers.

Expressions like síx and a hàlf should not be hyphenated when used predicatively after a verb. Hyphens are required to form adjectives: a thrêe-yêar-ôld gïrl; compare: shê was thrêe (yêars ôld); in other words, hyphens are used when the time-noun (yêar, mônth) is singular and is followed by a noun: Shê's fîve and a hàlf; shê's a fîve-and-a-hàlf-yêar-ôld gïrl; she's fîve and a hàlf yêars ôld.

Where two people are associated with one event, a hyphen can link their names: A clássic Smíth-Jônes encòunter. Similarly, US-Chîna relâtions, thê Ísrâel-Gàza bŏrder. (While one nowadays sees on television captions like ‘the Israel/Gaza border’: the solidus (/) is traditionally used for alternatives: ánd/ŏr.)

The hyphen is, of course, also used in double-barrelled names, Mrs Jônes-Smíth, though this is less common than it used to be and such names now often come without a hyphen.

The hyphen also distinguishes the adjective woùld-bê and the noun hás-bêen from their more common verbal equivalents: Coùld thís woùld-bê politícian alréady bê a hás-bêen?

It is also used to avoid triple-letter combinations: shéll-less, Invernéss-shîre (thus pronounced in Scotland, usually -shə(r) or -shêer elsewhere).

Where two hyphens both link to one word, the first can be "left dangling" as a "suspended hyphen": prô- and ánti-gòvernment. Initial and final ones indicate fragments of a word: con-, -or-, -ly.

foréver is never hyphenated, though it can be written as two words, as for example in for éver and éver. pôstcàrd has lost its hyphen: once, in Britain, postcards had their name printed on them as two words. díshẁasher, boòkcase and êmâil are now also among the hyphenless.

There should be no spaces round a hyphen. Spacing turns a hyphen into a dash - like that. (Doubling a hyphen, with or without spacing, also produces a dash--like this -- or that.)

Slash, dash or hyphen?

The forward slash (or stroke or solidus, /) is sometimes seen nowadays, particularly in informal contexts such as Wikipedia or blogging, to join two items that are being lumped together in some way; but this mark is traditionally more common for alternatives: mâle/fêmale, hót/côld; a hyphen is more typical of cases such as a jázz-róck bánd or the Dúckworth-Leŵis méthod, and when available, an en-dash is even better: jázz–róck or Dúckworth–Leŵis; strictly speaking, the slash means 'or', the hyphen or dash 'and'.

Illogical hyphens

A hyphen is supposed to make two words closer together than they would be written separately, but further apart than if they were run together. Thus expressions such as éx-Prîme Mínister are illogical, but correct—even though *éx-Prîme-Mínister might seem preferable. On the other side, forms such as unco-óperative and unself-cónscious are sometimes found.


  1. Wholesale changes in the 2007 edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed them from 16,000 words and phrases, compared to the 2002 edition. Finlo Rohrer, "Small Object of Grammatical Desire," BBC News Magazine, Sept. 20, 2007, online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7004661.stm