How to Use Hyphens in Your Writing

Hyphens are multipurpose punctuation marks. They help you maneuver through unexpected line breaks, separate parts of compound words, write certain numbers, and create one description from two words. Here you learn the basics of using hyphens.

Using hyphens to break lines

Computer users have to worry about hyphens less often than other writers. But when you’re writing by hand or typing on an old-fashioned typewriter (do they still exist?), you may need to divide a word at the end of a line to avoid a long blank space along the right-hand margin. If you have to divide a word, follow these simple rules:

  • Place the hyphen between the syllables, or sounds, of a word. (If you’re not sure where the syllable breaks are in a word, check the dictionary.)

  • Don’t leave only one letter of a divided word on a line. If you have a choice, divide the word more or less in the middle.

  • Don’t divide words that have only one syllable.

Web addresses can be very long. Don’t divide them with a hyphen. Either place the Web address on its own line or, if you absolutely have to divide, chop the address at a period or slash mark.

The practice of dividing a word between syllables is American. In Britain, words are often divided according to the derivation (family tree) of the word, not according to sound. For example, in the American system, democracy is divided into four parts — de-moc-ra-cy — because that’s how it sounds. In the British system, the same word is divided into two parts — demo-cracy — because the word is derived from two ancient Greek forms, demos (people) and kratia (power). Let the dictionary of the country you’re in be the final authority on dividing words.

Using hyphens for compound words

Hyphens also separate parts of compound words, such as ex-wife, pro-choice, mother-in-law, and so forth. When you type or write these words, don’t put a space before or after the hyphen.

The trend in modern writing is toward fewer punctuation marks. Thus, many words that used to be hyphenated compounds are now written as single words. Semi-colon, for instance, has morphed into semicolon. As always, the dictionary is your friend when you’re figuring out whether a particular expression is a compound, a single word, or two separate words.

Hyphens also show up when a single word might be misunderstood. For example if you get an e-mail that says, “I resent the e-mail.” You might question whether you have offended someone or whether the writer meant written re-sent.

Placing hyphens in numbers

Decisions about whether to write a numeral or a word are questions of style, not of grammar. In general, larger numbers are usually represented by numerals:

Roger has been arrested 683 times, counting last night.

However, on various occasions you may need to write the word, not the numeral. If the number falls at the beginning of a sentence, for example, you must use words because no sentence may begin with a numeral. You may also need to write about a fractional amount. Here’s how to hyphenate:

  • Hyphenate all the numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

  • Hyphenate all fractions used as descriptions (three-quarters full, for example).

  • Don’t hyphenate fractions used as nouns (three quarters of the money; one third of all registered voters).

Using the well-placed hyphen

If two words create a single description, put a hyphen between them if the description comes before the word that it’s describing (no hyphen if the description follows the word it's modifying). For example:

a well-placed hyphen, but the hyphen is well placed.

Don’t hyphenate two-word descriptions if the first word ends in -ly:

nicely drawn rectangle
completely ridiculous grammar rule
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