GCSE English Language Technical Accuracy: hyphens

In the last post, I was looking at punctuation in general, including the requirements for punctuation at GCSE for English Language.

To hit Level 2 or above, you will need to show growing accuracy in a range of punctuation.

At Level 2 (5-8 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 4), you will need to show you have some control a range of punctuation.

At Level 3 (9-12 marks out of 16, roughly up to Grade 7), you will need to show you can use a range of punctuation mostly successfully.

And at Level 4 (13-16 marks out of 16, up to the top of Grade 9), you will need to show you can use a wide range of punctuation with a high level of accuracy.

In stories and descriptions, however, you may find that you are hampered by what you are writing. After all, it’s not like stories or descriptions necessarily lend themselves to a wide range of punctuation in the same way that Paper 2 does. Indeed, in the extract I use about sentence forms from best-selling writer Lee Child, there were really only four punctuation marks used over 300 words: full stops, commas, omissive apostrophes and hyphens.

Hyphens are sadly overlooked. They have the power to change meaning completely.

Think about this sentence:

No smoking restrictions are in place

And this one:

No-smoking restrictions are in place

That hyphen has the power to mean that a) you CAN smoke or b) you CAN’T smoke.

Or this sentence:

A government monitoring programme will be set up.

How does it compare to:

A government-monitoring programme will be set up.

Well, in the first, the government are doing the monitoring, and in the second, the government are being monitored.

Hyphens also help with pronunciation.

The football player resigned


The football player re-signed

Again, very different meanings.

A hyphen is word glue. It glues words together or glues on prefixes to change meaning. It glues words together that you don’t want separated, or that you want people to consider to be one single thing.

There aren’t really guides as such, or definitive rules, but there are places where you’d definitely need a hyphen to make meaning clear. My rule is that I’m happy for them to be left out as long as meaning is clear, but it’s a sophisticated writer who thinks to include them where the meaning is clear but the words should be considered together.

Times move on, and words that used to be hyphenated, like tool-box, are no longer hyphenated. In fact, it looks rather quaint. Old-fashioned hyphen use like this is probably not necessary.

You can also use them to split up words if your word is going to drop off the end of the line and you ran out of space because the word was longer than you thought it was. Not their best use, but a use nonetheless. If you ever go into the world of typesetting and printing, you’ll need to know this stuff, but not if you just want a good grade at GCSE.

In terms of pronunciation, you wouldn’t usually use a hyphen unless the sense is confusing. That’s going to happen most where there is a word spelt the same but with a different meaning, like re-signed and resigned. Recreation and re-creation are another pair of examples. You can also use it with double letters such as re-examine, because reexamine looks hideous.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve got things before a noun and the first alters the meaning of the second, use a hyphen:

  • a well-read book
  • a little-used cup
  • a well-known brand of coffee
  • a three-year-old boy
  • a much-needed holiday
  • a best-kept secret

But if those adjectives come after the noun, then you don’t need a hyphen.

  • The book was well read
  • The cup was little used
  • The coffee brand was well known
  • The boy was three years old
  • The holiday was much needed
  • The secret was best kept to himself

You also find them in colour blends, like amber-gold, yellow-green, snow-white IF they come before the noun as well, like an amber-gold sunset, but not the sunset shone amber gold. They are quite fabulous for Paper 1 description or descriptive bits in narrative.

Fractions (two-thirds of a mile), times (a half-hour wait) numbers that modify an adjective (a third-floor apartment) also have them. Again, you don’t have them if they come after. The apartment was on the third floor doesn’t need one.

You can see the pattern, can’t you?

If you’ve got an adjective and it’s changed by another adjective, and they come before a noun, you’re going to use a hyphen.

To be honest, at GCSE, I’m just looking for them if you’ve used well, little, much or best before another adjective before a noun. I’m also looking for them if the sense is confusing.

You can see how in this example, panic buy is confusing…

Clearly something is needed to make it clear that they weren’t told ‘Don’t panic! Buy petrol!’ and ‘Don’t panic-buy petrol’ would be clearest. Clearer still would be ‘Don’t buy petrol in a panic’, but since this is a headline, you can see why there is a need for brevity.

Sometimes, a missing hyphen can cause confusion, as you have seen already.

Bernard was having extra marital sex.

Was he having an affair or had his marriage just picked up a notch? Yes, I know what they mean. They don’t mean he was having a lot of hanky-panky with his missus. They mean he was cheating. But if they mean that he was cheating, they really should have put a link in it.

His poodle is a well behaved dog.

Let me get this straight… his dog was well, or it was well behaved? If it was well behaved, it needs a hyphen. If, however, by bizarre and poor English, it was well and behaved, then that’s okay then.

The carriage was followed by six foot men.

So Cinderella had six servant guys or she was followed by an unspecified number of men who were six feet tall? You can, of course say footmen if you mean the kind of guys who follow carriages about in fancy old-fashioned clothing.

He was a rare cheese maker.

So he made rare cheeses or he was a cheesemaker who was rare?

Joyce Carol Oates was a short story writer.

She wrote short stories or she was short and she was a storywriter?

Now you don’t care about my silly examples of very deliberately chosen carelessness with hyphens. But I do care to give you some real-life examples. Without further ado, here are forty examples from the four things I am reading at the moment…

  • real-life version; self-reliant cook; rightward-slanting handwriting; co-authors; an upper-middle-class family; real-estate holdings; pinky-red rare; a bride-to-be’s cooking course; our day-to-day lives; pale-blue airmail paper
  • middle-class; socio-economic; semi-Dutch parentage; grand-daughter; non-Prussian areas of Germany; semi-secret; the one-time editor; far-reaching duties; mid-December; so-called
  • grid-like; deep-red tiles; a worm-eaten chest; ochre-washed farmhouses; bomb-damaged buildings; Burt Lancaster’s over-muscled physique squeezed into a leotard; blood-red poppies; there was nothing run-of-the-mill about the building; long-dead; vice-like
  • one of the world’s best-known figures; high-heeled boots; a bald-faced liar; it’s effort-free; rent-free; self-employed; aimed at eight-to-fifteen-year-old girls; two-thirds of UK children; Seventeenth-century Britain; a series of one-line paragraphs

As you can see, if you turn your similes around and put -like after, you need a hyphen. It’s also good for things where you stick on a -free after a noun. Definitely useful with numbers and colours. Actually when I did this exercise, I found hyphens everywhere – they littered fiction and non-fiction alike. I didn’t have to flick through pages and pages to find them, either.

Not a one of the examples is particularly confusing without a hyphen, but a hyphen helps all the same. Also, since they’re fairly conventional and rule-bound, they’re the kind of thing I like to look for if I’m trying to find a range of punctuation in writing, or if I’m trying to justify a Level 3 for punctuation or above. There is an element of personal style there (wait until we get to semicolon, semi colon and semi-colon) but there are times when it’s much more of a convention, like in old-fashioned or high-heeled than in others like toolbox.

Some further reading:


Grammar Tips

Now get out and get practising!

Up next: colons.



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.