“To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question!” And it really is. Because although the rules that govern hyphenation seem simple enough at first glance, there are also situations in your academic writing when you yourself must decide whether or not to add them, for a clearer understanding.
In general, hyphens are used to link words, and parts of words, together. They show the reader that two or more parts in a sentence are linked.
There are three main situations where they are used:
- In compound words
Compound nouns – these are things or concepts that are made up of two words, eg. ice cream, tow truck, bunk bed
This is probably the most confusing area with regards to the use of hyphens because some compound nouns are always hyphenated, eg. dry-cleaning, well-being; some are never hyphenated, eg. toothpaste, full moon; and for many compound nouns, the hyphen is optional.
When learning new compound words as part of your vocabulary, it is important to check in a dictionary and record the word/phrase in its correct form.
Compound adjectives – when the words describing the noun come before the noun and represent one idea, eg. a state-of-the-art museum, a business-like attitude. When the words come after the noun, they are not hyphenated.
Consider the difference:
well-known brands of coffee v. His music was also well known in England.
an up-to-date account v. Their figures are up to date.
- To join prefixes to other words
Prefixes (de-, pre-, re-, non-, etc) and suffixes (-less, -like, -ness, etc) may or may not be hyphenated. One general rule to remember is that if a compound word with a prefix or suffix can easily be misread or misunderstood, you should include a hyphen to make the meaning clearer.
Consider the difference:
re-sign (to sign again) v. resign (to quit your job)
re-dress (to dress again) v. redress (to make right)
- To show word breaks
When writing or typing text, it is sometimes necessary to break up a word so that it continues on to the next line, rather than moving the entire word to the next line. This is done so that the text looks better on the page. In order to do this, the word should be divided between syllables with a hyphen and then continued on the line below. This is not recommended in the IELTS exam.
Be careful. There are instances when using or omitting a hyphen can change the meaning of a word and therefore the entire sentence.
Consider the following:
She had a concealed weapons permit. This means her permit was hidden.
She had a concealed-weapons permit. This means she had a permit to carry a hidden gun.
Which is more likely the writer’s intended meaning?
Another example is:
Government-monitoring program: a program that monitors the government
Government monitoring program: a program that the government monitors
In general, you should remember that the main purpose of hyphens, as in the case of all punctuation, is for clarifying meaning. They should be used sparingly, keeping in mind whether the sentence is clear or confusing without them.
Do use hyphens in these instances:
- For all compound numbers, eg. ninety-nine
- For all fractions, eg. one-half (except fractions introduced with a or an – a half)
- For all new or unusual/trendy compound words, eg.
- When expressing ages (remember to use more than one hyphen), eg. my two-year-old child
- For double last names, eg. Mr Linley-Thomas
- If the prefix comes before a proper noun, eg. un-British, pro-Nazi
- If the prefix ends in the same vowel that the root words starts with, eg. semi-intelligent, re-enter
- After the following prefixes in most words: all-, cross-, ex-, and self-