Properly Punctuated: Hyphen, –

Posted December 14, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

Revised as of 25 September 2018

Hyphens work very hard to keep things clear. Separating out numbers and letters. Keeping that text justified without huge gaps between words in a single line. Working with adjectives to ensure the reader has the description the writer wants to convey. Preventing eyestrain with some of those word combinations.

Punctuation is…

…the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, ahem. As Properly Punctuated is in no way complete, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…

If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page — and consider sharing this Properly Punctuated tidbit with friends by tweeting it.

Hyphen, –
Credit to: Purdue OWL: Hyphen Use; Chicago Manual of Style Hyphen Chart; Chicago Manual of Style 15, 6.83
Punctuation: A single dash,
Definition: Links compound words and separate fragments of words at the ends of a line if you are justifying your text. It is also used as a minus sign.

Dashes incorporate Em Dashes and En Dashes

Hyphens are used with:

A.k.a., dash

Spacing the Hyphen Rule: Accepted practice is to insert a hyphen without any spaces between the words. Unless you are using it as a minus sign, then use a space on either side of the hyphen. Although, you should really use a proper minus sign.
Compound Words
Compound Adjective Rule: Compound adjectives are always hyphenated in front of a noun. A lack of a hyphen can lead to confusion on what is being described. Naturally, there are exceptions to hyphenating a compound word.

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a one-man invasion
after-dinner activities
a well-loved teddy bear
Burckmyer has a great example of how confusing it can be to not use a hyphen with ten thousand dollar bills:

  • ten-thousand dollar bills
  • ten thousand-dollar bills
  • ten-thousand-dollar bills

  1. Hyphenate before the noun being modified
  2. Leave the adjective as an open compound after that same noun, although Chicago (7.86) states that keeping the hyphen is also acceptable
Adjectives Without Hyphens Adjectives With Hyphens
I love how down to earth Clementine’s parents are. I love how down-to-earth Clementine’s parents are.
Exception: Never join AFTER a noun
The stone is free falling.

The invasion consisted of one man.

Activities were after dinner.

The teddy bear was well loved.

Avoid Confusion, Awkward Letter Combinations Rule: Use a hyphen when not using one can lead to a misinterpretation of the word or to make the word easier to read.

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re-sign a petition

Somehow, resign doesn’t give quite the same impression

shell-like is much easier to read than shelllike

semi-independent doesn’t make me feel like my eyes are crossing

Suspended Hyphenation Rule: Use suspended hyphenation to avoid excessive wordiness (Burckmyer, 149).

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The down- and feather-filled pillows are less firm than the foam rubber ones.

Less repetitive than The down-filled and feather-filled…

Each person must decide for him- or herself.

When you compare the second-and fourth-class postage rates…

Compound Numbers Rule: Connect written-out numbers between 21 and 99.
Return to top twenty-one
seven hundred thirty-seven
two thousand seventy-six
Compound Exceptions

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Year-Old Years Old
Rule: As an adjective or noun, always hyphenate Rule: Never hyphenate when it includes years
twenty-one years old
five years of age
Rule: Use suspended hyphenation when used as part of a range.
fifteen- to twenty-one-year-olds fifteen- to twenty-one years old
-ly Adverbs Rule: NEVER hyphenate adverbs ending in -ly.

See the rule on breaking an -ly adverb into syllables.

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She was a beautifully dressed woman. She was a beautifully-dressed woman.
Basic Prefix Rule: Use a hyphen after a prefix without spaces on either side of the hyphen.

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Prefix and Capitalized Word Rule: Use a hyphen between a prefix and a capitalized word.

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pre-Civil War
Prefix and Numbers Rule: Use a hyphen between a prefix and numbers.

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mid-17th century
Breaking into Syllables
Knowing about the syllables of a word helps with breaking them down when justifying text or creating line breaks.
Rule: Hyphens are required when using justify to ensure your text appears as a solid block of text with no ragged margins. It indicates a word has been split at the end of a line.
Basic Rules of Division Rule: Make a break between syllables.

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Words Ending in -ing Rule: In general, break a gerund or participle before the -ing unless there’s a double consonant involved when the hyphen should be inserted between the consonants.

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Break at the -ing Break Between Double Consonant
Dividing Compound Words Rule: Only divide already hyphenated words AT the hyphen.

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mass-   produced

self-   conscious

Division Exceptions Rule: Do not divide a proper noun or proper adjective if the parts of the word will be on two separate pages.

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Proper Nouns Proper Adjectives
-ly Adverb Rule: -ly should never start a new line when breaking an adverb into syllables.

See the rule on hyphenating an -ly adverb with an adjective.

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lovely love-   ly
sup-posedly supposed-   ly
beau-ti-fully beau-ti-ful-   ly
First or Last Letter Rule: Never hyphenate the first or last letter of a word.

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The Syllables Divide as…
e-val-u-ate eval-u-ate
Two-Letter Suffix Rule: Never hyphenate a word that leaves a two-letter suffix at the beginning of a new line.

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The Syllables Divide as…
car-di-ac car-diac
call-ed can’t be divided
em-ploy-ee can’t be divided
fast-en can’t be divided
fal-si-fy fal-sify
il-lu-mi-na-ti illumi-nati
Separate Characters
Separate Numbers Rule: Hyphens are used to separate numbers that are not inclusive.

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Telephone numbers: 888-555-1212
Social Security numbers: 123-45-6789
ISBN and serial numbers: ISBN-13: 978-0-226-10403-4


Minus Sign Definition: Used in mathematical equations, the minus symbol is as wide as a mathematical plus sign, and is more appropriate typographically.

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Rule: Using a proper minus sign avoids word wrap and accessibility issues. If your keyboard includes a number pad, use the minus sign from that, or:

  • For a PC, I “think” you ensure that Num-lock is on, then on the numeric keypad (not the numbers across the top of the keyboard), you press and hold the Alt key while you type 2 4 6 on the numeric keypad
  • For a Mac, go to the Character Viewer in the tool bar at the very top of the screen > Math Symbols > Minus Sign (−), select the symbol, then Insert
    • In Mac for Word, Edit > Emoji & Symbols > scroll down to find the + and − symbols (for the most accurate minus)
Hyphen 5 – 3 = 2
Minus Sign 5 − 3 = 2
Plus Sign 3 + 2 = 5
Separate Spelled-out Letters Rule: Indicates a word is being spelled whether it’s in dialog, in American Sign Language, or elsewhere.

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Dialog: “Honey, remember, little Georgie is not allowed c-a-n-d-y before bed,” his wife said.
American Sign Language: She quickly spelled out C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A for him.
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