Hyphens in writing are an essential punctuation point. But using hyphens can sometimes be a little confusing for new writers.
But knowing when and how to use them correctly is not as challenging as it seems.
There are many uses for hyphens. However, most difficulties arise with permanent and temporary compound adjectives.
When you use a compound adjective before a noun, you need to decide if you should use a hyphen to avoid confusion.
When to use hyphens in writing
There are no hard and fast rules governing the use of hyphens.
When you research, you will find that many style guides and even dictionaries differ in their interpretations.
If you want to dig deep into hyphen use, there are twenty-six general rules that cover most cases.
But our language is evolving every day, including the application of punctuation.
When you read major newspapers and magazines, you will notice a difference between hyphen use and punctuation.
So it can be challenging to know when to use a hyphen, em dash, or even an en dash.
However, there is one general rule on which most style guides agree.
If you think an expression could be confusing for a reader, use a hyphen.
Let’s look at the most common areas where you will need to decide when to use hyphens in your writing.
Permanent compounds are fixed expressions and have become part of our everyday language.
Very often, there is no need for a hyphen if the meaning is clear. But there are a few that are always hyphenated.
Credit card company
Monday morning traffic
Dimly lit room
When using the adverb well, it almost always uses a hyphen.
Writers create temporary compound adjectives all the time to meet a particular need.
You use them to describe the noun that follows accurately.
When you use a compound adjective before a noun, you should always take special care with hyphens.
Here are some quick examples to help you.
Small business investor
When you don’t add a hyphen, the possible perception is that the investor is very short. But with a hyphen, it is clear that the investor invests in small businesses.
Foreign sales representative
In the first example, it is unclear because it could mean that the sales representative is foreign.
With a hyphen, though, it is certain that the representative specializes in sales of products or services to foreign countries.
Small village feeling
There is no need for a hyphen because the meaning is apparent in this phrase.
However, a change of one word to the sentence makes a difference.
Little village feeling
Using the word little in a compound adjective can mean not much at all or almost none.
A hyphen fixes the problem by joining the two words so that the sense of little is small and relates to size and not quantity.
Compounds after a noun
Sometimes you can move a compound expression after the noun to make your meaning more precise.
Using a hyphen in this situation is not always necessary because the phrase usually has more clarity.
But again, it depends on which style guide or punctuation rules you follow.
In the two examples below, the second phrase could also use a hyphen.
The support was very much client centered
The discussion was open ended
All compounds that use self must have a hyphen, whether they come before or after a noun.
An entrepreneur is self-motivated
An actor is often self-assured
A course in self-defense
A hyphen with re
Whenever you use the prefix re to indicate again, be careful when there is the same full word.
Using a hyphen makes sure there is no confusion between the two forms of a word.
Re-sign and resign
To sign again or to quit a job.
Re-press and repress
To iron one more time or to limit or suppress.
Re-form and reform
To form again as a group or to improve or change.
Re-sent and resent
To send again or to dislike or begrudge.
Re-cover and recover
To replace a cover or to overcome an illness.
A few common compound adjective structures with numbers, abbreviations, and capitalized words always need a hyphen.
Deciding on hyphens in your writing
Is it better to use hyphens with compounds when you are not sure? The answer is yes, probably.
There are many expressions that commonly use hyphens.
long-term and short-term
But when you are creating your temporary compounds, take extra care.
Again, it’s probably better to use a hyphen if you are not 100% sure the sense of the expression is clear and obvious.
Like me, you probably take the easy way out quite often and let your grammar checker do the work for you when you are not sure.
But be careful because your grammar tools are not always 100% accurate.
That’s why you should have a good understanding of punctuation points such as hyphens so you can make the right decision.
In this article, I have only covered the basics, which will hopefully help you avoid ambiguities or confusion in your writing.
It is certainly not a definitive guide, and the examples I used are open to interpretation.
There are many resources available online covering this punctuation point.
If you are not sure about your hyphen use for a specific phrase, try to check a reliable source for an explanation.
One of the best resources I have found is the Chicago Manual of Style Hyphen Guide, which is extremely comprehensive.
It’s ten pages long and covers all the possible uses, so make sure you’re ready for a long read.
As I said in the article, there are no hard and fast rules for hyphens in writing. You need to decide each time based on the best information you can find.
But in the end, it always comes down to using a hyphen to give clarity and avoid any possible confusion.
Related reading: The Hyphen Is Disappearing, But We Still Need The Little Dash