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What Is A Hyphen and How Do You Use It?

UserLucy Wilson time25 October,2022

A hyphen is the punctuation sign used to join words together to make a compound, as in ' left-handed'. People also use a hyphen to show that the rest of a word is on the next line. The hyphen joins words or parts of words. Hyphens are used at the ends of lines where a word has been split, to warn the reader that the word continues on the next line.

The word is derived from Ancient Greek, contracted from  "in one" (literally "under one"). A hyphen was an undertie-like sign written below two adjacent letters to indicate that they belong to the same word when it was necessary to avoid ambiguity before word spacing was practiced.

The English language does not have definitive punctuation rules, though various style guides provide detailed usage recommendations and have a significant amount of overlap in what they advise. Hyphens are mostly used to break single words into parts or to join ordinarily separate words into single words. Spaces are not placed between a hyphen and either of the elements it connects except when using a suspended or "hanging" hyphen that stands in for a repeated word (e.g., nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers). Style conventions that apply to hyphens (and dashes) have evolved to support ease of reading in complex constructions; editors often accept deviations if they aid rather than hinder easy comprehension.

As an orthographic concept, the hyphen is a single entity. In terms of character encoding and display, it is represented by any of several characters and glyphs, including the Unicode hyphen (shown at the top of the infobox on this page), the hyphen-minus, the soft (optional) hyphen, and the non-breaking hyphen. The character most often used to represent a hyphen is called the "hyphen-minus" by Unicode, deriving from the original ASCII standard where it was called "hyphen (minus)".

Although hyphens are not to be confused with en dashes, there are some overlaps in usage (in which either a hyphen or an en dash may be acceptable, depending on user preference, as discussed below). In addition, the hyphen often substitutes for the en dash elsewhere in informal writing.

If the word you need to split is clearly made up of two or smaller words or elements, you should put the hyphen after the first of these parts. Otherwise, you put the hyphen at the end of a syllable. It is best not to add a hyphen if the word is a short one, or if it would mean writing just one or two letters at the end or beginning of a line. For example, it would be better to write ‘unnatural’ on the line below, rather than writing ‘un-’ on one line and ‘natural’ on the next. Prefixes that are used in front of a word beginning with a capital letter always have a hyphen after them. Example- a wave of anti-British feeling, a neo-Byzantine cathedral. A hyphen is used to join two or more words that together form an adjective, where this adjective is used before the noun it describes. Example- an up-to-date account, a last-minute rush, a six-year-old boy. The hyphen is omitted when the adjective so formed comes after the noun or pronoun it describes. Example- The accounts are up to date, it was all rather last minute, and he’s six years old. Hyphens can be used to split words that have been formed by adding a prefix to another word, especially to avoid an awkward combination of letters or confusion with another word. Example- re-elect, re-covering furniture, re-creation.

In certain written works, such as newspapers or magazine articles, a hyphen is often used to divide a word across two lines for formatting reasons. Although the specifics vary depending on style guides, the general rules are typical as follows:

  • A word is split after a complete syllable. For example, we would write cover rather than cover.
  • Look for ways to deconstruct the word naturally. For example, if a word uses prefixes or suffixes, you can use these to divide a word.
  • If a word ends in -ing, a double consonant is split. For example, running would be written as running.
  • A word that already has a hyphen is simply split according to the hyphen.
  • Depending on the style guide, other rules and exceptions will need to be followed.

The hyphen closely resembles the two types of dashes, the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). However, these three punctuation marks are not used interchangeably. Here is a quick breakdown of how we generally use these three different marks:

  • Hyphen: Compound words and line breaks.
  • En dash: Ranges and more complex compound words, as in Please read pages 17–35 She was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
  • Em dash: Pauses and interrupted dialogue, as in The letter revealed that the culprit was someone I had never considered—me! or  “I need you to—” was all he managed to say before falling overboard.

Some compound words, such as self-restraint are hyphenated. Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine should also be hyphenated when they’re spelled out. But when you’re not sure whether a compound word should have a hyphen or not, check a dictionary or style guide. Hyphenated words tend to become closed compounds (single words with no hyphens) over time. Email instead of e-mail, for example, is increasingly common.

One should also use a hyphen with a compound modifier before a noun. A compound modifier (also called a phrasal adjective) is made up of two or more words that must be understood as a unit. For example, “a big, bright hotel” does not contain a compound modifier because big and bright don’t form a unit of meaning. But “a dog-friendly hotel” does contain a compound modifier; unless you understand “dog-friendly” as a unit of meaning, the phrase doesn’t make sense. The hyphen shows the reader that the words should be taken together as a descriptor for the noun. Most often, compound modifiers are made up of an adjective plus a noun or participle. They’re also commonly composed of a noun plus a gerund.

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