The Red Pen: When to Use a Hyphen

We Need to Talk About Grammar is a weekly feature in which I complain about grammatical mistakes I encounter all too often. Feel free to commiserate below, and check out the archives here!

Like apostrophes, hyphens are often misused and abused, mostly because people don’t know (and were probably never taught) how to use them correctly. It’s not always easy to figure it out, for sure, and there are plenty of times that I mess it up myself. Today, I’m going to talk about when you should use a hyphen; next week, I’ll detail all the various times where you shouldn’t.


1. Compound adjectives. According to apastyle.org, it’s important to use a hyphen in a compound adjective when the meaning isn’t immediately clear without one. Take our American propensity to add “ass” to adjectives: “That’s a huge-ass trailer.” Without an adjective, you get “That’s a huge ass trailer,” which could mean one of two things:

a) That’s a really, really big trailer.
b) That’s a really big trailer (whose apparent use is to haul asses).

Via XKCD

Keep in mind, though, that adjectives like these generally only have to be hyphenated if they precede the noun they are modifying:

a) The six-year-old girl
b) The girl is six years old

The above is a mistake that I see very often. A lot of people will say “My niece is six-years-old,” but that’s incorrect.

Also, be careful not to use a hyphen with adverbs (words that modify adjectives or verbs):

a) The extremely-tired puppy INCORRECT
b) The extremely tired puppy CORRECT


2. To indicate a range. Most often used with numbers or dates:

a) From November 29-December 2, I will be traveling in Florida.
b) We can expect anywhere from 200-250 guests at this evening’s gala.
c) I will be out of the office Monday-Wednesday, but I will be available Thursday-Friday.

You should also hyphenate numbers 21-99 when you write them out (twenty-one, ninety-nine), as well as fractions (two-thirds). Anything above that is not hyphenated, but 21-99 remains hyphenated (three hundred and thirty-three). In most cases, you probably won’t have to worry about this because many style guides say you should only spell out numbers up to nine, and at 10 begin using digits.

Remember: hyphens should not be surrounded by spaces.


3. Clarification. English can be weird, and it’s not impossible that our relatively rigid syntax can actually end up being more confusing than not. Take the following sentences:

a) I have some more important things to take care of before we leave.
b) I have some more-important things to take care of before we leave.

With sentence a, you’re left wondering if the speaker means she has additional, important things to take care of (the implication is that they are all of equal importance), or if she has some things to take care of that are more important than the other things she has already done. Sentence b is clear: she has to take care of a few things that are more important than the ones she has already done.


4. Prefixes and suffixes. Most prefixes and suffixes attach to words without hyphens (amoral, disuse, unhappy; likeable, louder, scandalous), but there are a few special cases. When the prefix is attached to a proper noun, you should add a hyphen:

We’re getting married mid-June of 2016!

If the prefix ends in the same letter with which the base word starts, or if the suffix begins with the same letter with which the base word ends, it’s good to add a hyphen for clarity:

Do you think the mayor will be re-elected?
Ha, “awesomesauce” is such a Heidi-ism, she says it all the time!

When a word might be confusing without it, definitely add a hyphen:

I have to go de-ice the car.
I’ve had to re-cover that chair way too many times.

When using the prefixes self-, ex-, or all-, or the suffixes -style, -elect, -free, or -based, you need a hyphen:

Ex-girlfriend
Self-esteem
All-knowing
Impressionist-style
President-elect
Fat-free
Water-based

Whew—that’s it for today. Don’t forget to check back next week for when you should avoid using hyphens!

Vol. 16 Stephen Colbert pic

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4 thoughts on “The Red Pen: When to Use a Hyphen

  1. Good lesson! I was taught in college that any time you use well, as in well-done or well-deserved, etc., there needs to be a hyphen too. But, I’m not sure that’s correct.

  2. I think it depends on the context. When you’re talking about a “well-deserved raise,” you’d use a hyphen because it’s a compound adjective and comes before the noun it’s modifying. But if you say “Her raise was well deserved,” you don’t use a hyphen, because the compound adjective comes after the noun it modifies. 🙂

  3. Just for some mathematical clarification, 333 should be written as “three hundred thirty-three.” The “and” indicates a decimal point, so you would need to include something like hundredths or thousandths based on where the 33 is placed (300.033 is three hundred and thirty-three thousandths). 😉

    • Good point! I very vaguely remember learning in elementary school not to use “and” in numbers like that, but that rule seemed to fall by the wayside as I grew up and people used it all willy-nilly. Now I know why I’m not supposed to! Thanks!

      Also, almost all style guides say to use numbers for anything over 10, so writing out “three hundred thirty-three” would hopefully not be a common occurrence anyway. But thanks for the tip 😀

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