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Hyphen Use

Summary:

A comprehensive rundown on the proper use of the hyphen.

Contributors:Sean M. Conrey, Karl Stolley
Last Edited: 2013-06-07 09:00:40

Two words brought together as a compound may be written separately, written as one word, or connected by hyphens. For example, three modern dictionaries all have the same listings for the following compounds:

hair stylist
hairsplitter
hair-raiser

Another modern dictionary, however, lists hairstylist, not hair stylist. Compounding is obviously in a state of flux, and authorities do not always agree in all cases, but the uses of the hyphen offered here are generally agreed upon.

  1. Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:
    a one-way street
    chocolate-covered peanuts
    well-known author
    However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:
    The peanuts were chocolate covered.
    The author was well known.
  2. Use a hyphen with compound numbers:
    forty-six
    sixty-three
    Our much-loved teacher was sixty-three years old.
  3. Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:
    re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
    semi-independent (but semiconscious)
    shell-like (but childlike)
  4. Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, all-; with the suffix -elect; between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters:
    ex-husband
    self-assured
    mid-September
    all-inclusive
    mayor-elect
    anti-American
    T-shirt
    pre-Civil War
    mid-1980s
  5. Use a hyphen to divide words at the end of a line if necessary, and make the break only between syllables:
    pref-er-ence
    sell-ing
    in-di-vid-u-al-ist
  6. For line breaks, divide already-hyphenated words only at the hyphen:
    mass-
    produced
    self-
    conscious
  7. For line breaks in words ending in -ing, if a single final consonant in the root word is doubled before the suffix, hyphenate between the consonants; otherwise, hyphenate at the suffix itself:
    plan-ning
    run-ning
    driv-ing
    call-ing
  8. Never put the first or last letter of a word at the end or beginning of a line, and don't put two-letter suffixes at the beginning of a new line:
    lovely (Do not separate in a way which leaves ly beginning a new line.)
    eval-u-ate (Separate only on either side of the u; do not leave the initial e- at the end of a line.)

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