How to Use Hyphens Correctly

Writing

24th January 2024

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The hyphen may seem like a small and inconspicuous punctuation mark, but its correct usage plays a crucial role in ensuring clarity and precision in written communication. Understanding how to use hyphens correctly can elevate your writing and help convey your message with accuracy. In this guide, we will explore the rules and nuances of hyphenation to empower you with the skills to wield this punctuation tool effectively.

Compound Words

One primary function of hyphens is to join words to create compound words. This is particularly important in instances where the meaning of the phrase might be unclear without the hyphen. For example, consider the difference between a “small business owner” and a “small-business owner.” The latter implies an owner of a small business, emphasising the size, while the former could suggest a business owner who is physically small.

Adjective-Noun Combinations

Hyphens are often used to connect two or more words acting as a single adjective before a noun. This is especially common when expressing ages, distances, or other measurements. For instance, in the phrase “a five-year-old child,” the hyphens clarify that the words “five” and “year” together modify the noun “child.”

Adverb-Adjective Combinations

In some cases, hyphens are used to link adverbs and adjectives when they work together to modify a noun. For example, in the phrase “a well-known actor,” the hyphen connects “well” and “known” to collectively describe the actor.

Compound Verbs

Hyphens can be employed to connect compound verbs, especially when they precede the noun they modify. For example, in the sentence “He is a hard-working employee,” the hyphen in “hard-working” helps convey that both words collectively describe the employee.

Prefixes and Suffixes

When a prefix is added to a word, hyphenation is often required to avoid confusion or misinterpretation. Consider the difference between “re-create” (to create again) and “recreate” (to have fun or relax). Similarly, when a suffix is added, hyphens can be used for clarity, such as in “self-esteem” or “pre-existing.”

Number Hyphenation

Hyphens are commonly used in number ranges, such as in dates or page numbers. For instance, “pages 50-75” or “the event will take place from January 1-15.” The hyphen clarifies that the range includes all the numbers between the two specified values.

Avoiding Ambiguity

Hyphens are crucial for preventing ambiguity in sentences. Consider the phrase “a man-eating shark.” Without the hyphen, it might be unclear whether the shark is eating men or is itself a man that eats. The hyphen eliminates any confusion, indicating that the shark is a predator that eats humans.

Do Not Confuse Hyphens with Dashes!

It’s essential to note that hyphens should not be confused with dashes, as they serve different purposes in punctuation. Hyphens are shorter and are used to connect words or parts of words, as illustrated in the examples above. On the other hand, dashes, specifically en dashes (–) and em dashes (—), are longer and serve different functions, such as indicating ranges or emphasising information. Understanding the distinctions between hyphens and dashes is crucial for maintaining precision in your writing and ensuring that each punctuation mark fulfils its unique role.

Using Hyphens Correctly: Precision Matters

Whether you are creating compound words, connecting adjectives and nouns, or indicating number ranges, understanding the rules and nuances of hyphen use is essential. By incorporating hyphens effectively, you not only adhere to grammatical conventions but also ensure that your message is communicated with the intended meaning. 

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