TipSheet 4: Hyphens
A hyphen is a small mark (-) used to join words together.
Hyphens are used widely in English to attach two (or more) words, or parts of words, in order to make a compound word.
Here are some examples:
two-thirds, ex-husband, anti-aircraft, vice-president, third-world debt, 25-year-old footballer, value-added tax, the ill-equipped regiment, book-keeping, re-entry, shake-up, build-up, trouble-maker, brother-in-law, prisoner-of-war, ice-cream, turning-point, working-party.
However, there are many two-word combinations where no hyphens are used:
birth rate, child care, vice versa, Land Rover, air force, ballot box, car maker
And there are many words which are composed of two words but are written as one:
peacekeeper, ceasefire, cashflow, headache, handout, businessman, underpaid, workforce, wartime, stockmarket, overrule, offshore, forever, anyone.
How do you know if you need a hyphen? Short answer: use a dictionary. Sometimes British and US dictionaries will differ. Also, the Economist website (see link under 'Styleguides' on my Writing Resources site) has an excellent section on hyphens with lots of examples.
Long answer: try to learn and practise these rules for using hyphens:
1. In fractions:
two-thirds, four-fifths, one-sixth
2. In words using the prefixes ex-, anti-, non-:
ex-president, anti-aircraft, non-payment
But not in most words using sub-, under- , inter- and over-:
submarine, underrate, international, overpaid
unless the words are longer and the hyphen helps to make it more readable (eg 'inter-governmental).
3. In some job titles:
vice-president, under-secretary, assistant-director, deputy-head, field-marshal
but not in some political titles:
district attorney, Secretary General of the United Nations, permanent secretary
4. In phrases where there could be confusion or ambiguity:
a little-used car (not a little used car)
high-school girl (not high schoolgirl)
third-world war (not third world war)
little-known musician (not little known musician)
5. In making adjectives from two words:
right-wing groups, public-sector wages, 25-year-old footballer, value-added tax, first-hand account, hands-on approach, strong-minded leader
Also note: face-to-face meeting, ground-to-air missile.
6. In modified adjectives before a noun:
the well-dressed woman had a soft-spoken voice
the ill-equipped regiment was short of supplies
the much-discussed proposal was finally accepted
the long-awaited match ended in penalties
but not when the adjective comes after the verb:
the woman was well dressed and spoke softly
the regiment was ill equipped and short of supplies
the proposal was much discussed and was finally accepted
the match was long awaited and ended in penalties
Also, not in phrases using adverbs, especially -ly ones:
some people are very expensively educated
the report was carefully written and fully costed
the barn owl is fast disappearing
7. In words where an identical letter separates the two joined parts:
book-keeping, coat-tails, pre-emptive, re-entry
but there are some exceptions:
overrule, underrate, withhold
8. In making nouns from verb + preposition:
there was a long build-up to the match
the whole set-up needs to be changed
the company is going through a shake-up
let's have a get-together some time
but note that some of these nouns are now so established in English that hyphens are no longer needed:
setback, handout, inbox, takeaway
9. In points of the compass:
north-east(ern), south-west(ern), mid-west(ern)
Note: capitals are only used for the recognised name of a region, eg South-East Asia
10. In a large number of well-known compound words:
asylum-seeker, catch-phrase, fund-raiser, infra-red, know-how, news-stand, rain-check, starting-point, turning-point, task-force, brother-in-law, prisoner-of-war, time-bomb, working-party, second-in-command.
On hyphens, see this BBC story.