Hyphen definition

Hyphen (-) Meaning, Uses, And Examples

Ever found yourself staring at the computer screen, debating whether ‘non-negotiable’ has a hyphen or not? Or maybe you’ve written an email and paused at ‘follow-up’—hyphen or no hyphen? 

Welcome to the club! 

Let me start by sharing a blooper: I once advertised a ‘small business owners conference.’ Sounds like a gathering for petite entrepreneurs, right?

Missed hyphen alert! What I meant was a ‘small-business owner’s conference.’ The hyphen makes all the difference.

Hyphens may be tiny dashes, but they can lead to some sizeable confusion. These little lines impact the clarity of your sentences more than you’d think, and getting them wrong can be a real face-palm moment. 

Let’s dive into the hyphen-hype and iron out the kinks once and for all, shall we?

What Is A Hyphen Anyway?

A hyphen is that short dash (-) we use to link words together. 

Think of it as a little bridge connecting islands of ideas, making them stronger, clearer, and sometimes changing the meaning entirely. 

It’s the difference between a ‘man eating chicken’ and a ‘man-eating chicken’ (run for your life!). 

Hyphens clarify compound words like ‘mother-in-law’ and ‘state-of-the-art,’ ensuring that your readers understand exactly what you mean.

Check out these other punctuation tips:

When To Use A Hyphen

Hyphens are all about clarity. If the words you’re writing feel like they might trip someone up, a hyphen could be the hero you need. 

They serve specific purposes:

  • Compound adjectives: When two adjectives gang up to describe a noun, like ‘a well-known artist’.
  • Numbers and ages: Like ‘a twenty-one-year-old bottle of wine’.
  • Prefixes: Sometimes, they need a hyphen to avoid letter pile-ups or confusion, as in ‘re-enter’ vs. ‘reenter.’
  • Capital letters: When a prefix is attached to a word that starts with a capital letter, a hyphen is used for clarity. Examples include ‘non-English’ and ‘pre-Revolution’
  • Separate syllables in pronunciation: To clarify the pronunciation of a word, as in ‘hy-phen-a-tion.’
  • Doubled-up vowels: To make words with double vowels more readable, such as ‘re-energise’ or ‘semi-independent.’​
  • A word spelled out letter by letter: For example, spelling ‘chiaroscurist’ as c-h-i-a-r-o-s-c-u-r-i-s-t​​.
  • Stammering or sobbing: To convey emotional speech, like ‘I’m s-s-sorry I broke the c-car.’

Hyphen Vs. Dash

When it comes to punctuation, it’s essential to understand the differences between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash, as each serves a distinct purpose in writing.

hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three and is primarily used to link words or syllables together, such as in compound words like ‘mother-in-law’ or ‘well-being.’ 

It’s also used with prefixes and suffixes, like ‘anti-inflammatory’ or ‘ex-president,’ and to divide words at the end of a line for better text alignment.

En dash 

An en dash (–), approximately the length of the letter ‘N,’ is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. 

It’s typically used to indicate a range of values, such as ‘1990–2000’ or ‘pages 10–20’, to denote scores or results, like ‘The final score was 3–2’, and to represent connections or relationships, as in ‘New York–London flight’ or ‘mother–daughter relationship.’

Em dash 

An em dash (—), similar in length to the letter ‘M,’ is the longest of the three and is used to create a strong break in a sentence, similar to parentheses or commas, but with more emphasis.

It can indicate an interruption in thought (‘I was going to the—oh, never mind’), add emphasis to a word or phrase (‘The secret ingredient—garlic—made the dish delicious’), or set off a parenthetical phrase (‘My brother—who is a chef—makes the best pasta’).

Hyphen Examples: The Most Common Uses

Use CaseExample Without HyphenExample With HyphenExplanation
Number + Noun30 minute workout30-minute workoutA workout that lasts 30 minutes
Adjective + Nounfull time jobfull-time jobA job that requires a full work schedule
Adjective + Present Participlefast moving trafficfast-moving trafficTraffic that is moving quickly
Compound Modifiers Before Nounschocolate flavored ice creamchocolate-flavored ice creamDescribes ice cream with a chocolate flavor
Ages as Modifiersa three year old boya three-year-old boyDescribes a boy who is three years old
Compound Nounssister in lawsister-in-lawRefers to the sister of one’s spouse
Prefixesreexaminere-examineUsed to avoid confusion with another word (like ‘recreate’ vs. ‘re-create’)
Prefixes with Capital Letterspost World Warpost-World WarPertaining to the period after the World War
Suspended Hyphensfirst and second grade teacherfirst- and second-grade teacherIndicates a teacher of both first and second grade
Fractions as Adjectivesa half eaten sandwicha half-eaten sandwichDescribes a sandwich that has been partially eaten
Double Last NamesSofia VergaraSofia-VergaraUsed for a person who uses both surnames
Hyphen with Certain Prefixesall inclusive resortall-inclusive resortDescribes a resort where all expenses are included
Multiword Compoundseditor in chiefeditor-in-chiefRefers to the chief editor
Word Division at Line BreaksJustifi-cationJustifi-“Justifi-cation” may be divided as “Justifi-” at the end of a line and “cation” at the beginning of the next line
Confusing Word Groupsman eating sharkman-eating sharkA shark that eats humans, not a man who is eating a shark

FAQs On Hyphens

What Does A Hyphen Look Like?

A hyphen is a short dash (-) you find on your keyboard next to the ‘0’ key. It’s like a minus sign’s twin but used to connect words and parts of words.

What Is An Example Of A Hyphen?

An everyday example of a hyphen is in the term ‘part-time.’ It links ‘part’ and ‘time’ to indicate a job that is not full-time.

Is Hyphen A Slash?

Nope, a hyphen isn’t a slash. A slash (/) slants forward, while a hyphen (-) is a straight line. They have different uses; slashes can mean ‘or’ or ‘per,’ but hyphens are for joining words and splitting syllables at the end of a line.

What Are The 3 Uses Of Hyphen?

1. Creating compound modifiers: When two words come together to describe something, like a “blue-sky view.”

2.Avoiding confusion: Hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity or confusion by connecting words or prefixes with the words they modify, such as “re-creation” (creating again) to distinguish it from “recreation” (fun activities).

3. Breaking words: Hyphens are used to break words at the end of lines in a way that maintains readability, especially in justified text where both the left and right edges are aligned.

What Is The Most Common Use Of A Hyphen?

The most common use is probably in compound modifiers, like ‘blue-green algae.’ It tells you the algae are blue and green, not that green algae are feeling blue.

Is A Hyphen A Letter?

No, it’s a punctuation mark. You won’t find it in the alphabet, but you’ll find it making peace between squabbling words that need to get along in a sentence.

Is Son In Law Hyphenated?

Yes, ‘son-in-law’ is hyphenated because it’s a compound noun. Each word is equally important, so the hyphens hold them together like a family unit.

What Is The Difference Between An Apostrophe And A Hyphen?

An apostrophe (’) is used to show possession or to indicate missing letters in contractions. A hyphen (-), on the other hand, links words or syllables.

Does Nice Looking Need A Hyphen?

Yes, it does. ‘Nice-looking’ is a compound adjective describing something that looks nice. Without the hyphen, it could imply that you’re looking nicely at something, which is a different scenario.

What Does A Hyphen Look Like In An Email Address?

Hyphens in email addresses are just like any other hyphen: a simple dash without spaces. So, an email like [email protected] uses a hyphen, not to be confused with an underscore (_).

Final Thoughts

So, go ahead and share your hyphen horror stories in the comments. Did a hyphen—or the lack of one—ever cause a hilarious misunderstanding? Or maybe it saved your sentence from falling into ambiguity? Let’s hear it!

Don’t forget to like, share, and follow for more deep dives into the quirks of the English language. 

And for those who are serious about mastering English, check out Hi English Hub.

And that’s a wrap—at least, for now. Until our next linguistic adventure, keep those hyphens—and your English skills—sharp!

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