Precision: hyphens

Hyphens are those little lines that marry words together. They look like this.

So the dash is the one that shows a pause between ideas – like this one. There is a space on either side. When you hyphenate things, like in this so-called example, there is no space.*

So what does a hyphen do? Well, it’s both the marriage and divorce of words. It brings together and it tears asunder. So it gives us fifty-odd (about fifty) and it gives us re-sign (to sign again) Just to be clear, the jury is still out on exactly where it should be used, but let’s just say its main purpose is CLARITY. It makes things stick together that need to stick together, and it separates bits of words that we need to stress. 

Plus, some things that we hyphenate kind of stop being hyphenated. Like e-mailWho writes e-mail these days? It’s usually email, yes? Purists might disagree. Again, think about if one is needed to make the meaning clear. I’ll show you some examples later. But if you write email nobody is going to get confused about what you mean. We English writers like hyphens more than our New World English-speaking neighbours. Do you see what I did there? English-speaking neighbours. Because I need you to see these two words as connected. They aren’t English, speaking (they speak and they are English) but they speak English. 

So why is it important? 

Because it is about precision with punctuation. Past a B grade, I should be able to write clearly and precisely, using punctuation that clarifies meaning. And that includes the humble hyphen. If you want an A or A* at GCSE, then you need to make sure you aren’t making errors with this tiny little marriage-of-words piece of punctuation.

So…. the rules. 

Most importantly, use it to join together two or more words that you need to be considered together. If they shouldn’t be split up, marry them together with a hyphen. When you use a hyphen, it’s like those words become one word on their own. 

Mostly, we use them with adjectives before a noun. We don’t use them with adjectives after a noun. So I say a well-known singer or a singer who is well knownWe use it a lot with well before nouns. Well-read books, well-spoken young man, a well-adjusted teenager, a well-behaved dogBUT: books that are well read, a young man who is well spoken, a teenager who is well adjusted, a dog that is well behaved

We also use them with post and pre. Like post-war, pre-school, post-apocalyptic, pre-punk. 

If you want a more-technical breakdown, the Oxford Dictionary is a good place to start. Final rule… don’t use it with adverbs ending in ‘ly’ because they usually describe the adjective. 

Like this:

casually discarded clothes

casually describes the adjective discarded. The clothes aren’t casually. That makes no sense. However, casual-wear cardigan works because I want you to think of casual and wear as stuck together. One idea. 

So, look at the following examples

How is:

Three-year-old boys

different from

Three year-old boys?

(because one means boys in general who are three years old and the other means three boys who are one year old.)


American-football players

American football players

From Pearson Longman's English Progess

A man eating tiger

A man-eating tiger


Some more important reasons

Some more-important reasons


more-educated students

more educated students


A government monitoring programme

A government-monitoring programme

This one is quite important. One means the government is being watched. The other means the government are watching something else.

I resent your message =

I re-sent your message =

Again, really important. The first one means you are really angry that the person sent you a message, and the other means you sent the message again. 

The football player resigned =

The football player re-signed =

Massively important. One means the player signs up again for the club, and the other means the player leaves the club. Completely different meanings! 

There are no smoking restrictions =

There are no-smoking restrictions =

 Again, total opposites. One means you can smoke and the other means you can’t. 

So, fifty odd people means fifty people who are odd. Fifty-odd people means around about fifty people. Re-signing is different from resigning. Narrative writing’s opposite is non-narrative writing. If your writing is not in time order, it is non-chronological writing. It’s a non-native English-speaking teacher, not a non native English speaking teacher or even a non-native-English-speaking and definitely not a non-native-English speaking teacher. That’s crazy! a speaking teacher who is non native English. What??! 

* unless it is a ‘hanging’ hyphen which means you’ve got two words that should be hyphenated to one. Like this example: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Because it should really be eighteeth-century and nineteenth-century literature. 


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