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Hyphens are an important component of written English. They are used to connect two or more words into a single concept or to indicate a compound adjective. However, many people struggle with how to properly use hyphens in their writing. In this article, we will provide a step-by-step guide to using hyphens correctly.

Step 1: Understand the Purpose of Hyphens

Before we delve into the specifics of how to use hyphens, it’s important to understand why we use them. Hyphens serve two main purposes:

  1. To join two or more words into a single concept: For example, the words “high-tech” are hyphenated to indicate that they are a single concept, rather than two separate concepts.
  2. To indicate a compound adjective: A compound adjective is created when two or more words are used together to describe a noun. For example, “fast-moving” is a compound adjective that describes a car.

Step 2: Hyphenate Compound Adjectives

When using a compound adjective, it’s important to hyphenate the words to indicate that they are a single concept. For example:

  • “Well-written article”
  • “Light-blue shirt”
  • “Old-fashioned recipe”

If you don’t hyphenate a compound adjective, it can lead to confusion or misinterpretation. For example, “big box store” could be interpreted as a large box that is a store, rather than a store that sells large boxes.

Step 3: Hyphenate Words that Begin with Prefixes

When a word begins with a prefix, such as “self-” or “ex-”, it’s often hyphenated. For example:

  • “Self-esteem”
  • “Ex-girlfriend”
  • “Anti-inflammatory”

This helps to clarify the meaning of the word and prevent confusion.

Step 4: Hyphenate Numbers

When writing out numbers, hyphens are often used to separate digits. For example:

  • “Twenty-four”
  • “Seventy-eight”
  • “One hundred and fifty-two”

Hyphens are also used to indicate a range of numbers, such as “pages 23-45”.

Step 5: Use Hyphens in Compound Nouns

Compound nouns are created when two or more words are combined to form a single noun. For example:

  • “Coffee table”
  • “Parking lot”
  • “Airplane”

These compound nouns are often written without hyphens, but when they are used as adjectives, they are typically hyphenated. For example:

  • “Coffee-table book”
  • “Parking-lot attendant”
  • “Airplane seat”

Step 6: Use Hyphens in Fractions

When writing out fractions, hyphens are used to separate the numerator and denominator. For example:

  • “Two-thirds”
  • “One-half”
  • “Five-eighths”

Step 7: Use Hyphens in Complex Compounds

When writing out complex compounds, such as scientific or technical terms, it’s important to hyphenate them to clarify their meaning. For example:

  • “Electron-proton collision”
  • “Inter-state highway”
  • “Pre-historic era”

Step 8: Don’t Hyphenate Commonly Used Words

Some words are so commonly used together that they don’t require a hyphen. For example:

  • “High school”
  • “Full time”
  • “Ice cream”

Step 9: Check a Dictionary

If you’re unsure whether a word should be hyphenated or not, check a dictionary. Most dictionaries will provide hyphenation information for each word.

Step 10: Practice and Proofread

The best way to improve your hyphenation skills is to practice using hyphens in your writing. Make a conscious effort to hyphenate compound adjectives and complex compounds, and check your work for errors before submitting it.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I use an en dash instead of a hyphen?

An en dash is used to indicate a range of values, such as “pages 23–45”. It’s longer than a hyphen and can be created by typing “Alt + 0150” on a Windows computer or “Option + -” on a Mac.

Should I use a hyphen with the word “non”?

It depends on the word that follows “non”. If the next word is a noun or an adjective, you should use a hyphen. For example, “non-profit” or “non-native”. If the next word is a verb or an adverb, you don’t need a hyphen. For example, “nonfiction” or “nonverbally”.

Do I need to use a hyphen with numbers that are spelled out?

No, you don’t need to use a hyphen when spelling out numbers in words, such as “twenty”. However, you should use a hyphen when the number is written as digits, such as “20”.

How do I know if a compound noun should be hyphenated or not?

Compound nouns that are commonly used together, such as “high school” or “ice cream”, don’t require a hyphen. However, compound nouns that are less common or used as adjectives should be hyphenated. For example, “coffee-table book” or “airplane seat”.

Is there a general rule for when to use a hyphen?

While there are some general guidelines for using hyphens, there are many exceptions and specific cases where hyphenation is necessary. The best approach is to consult a style guide or dictionary when in doubt.

Can using too many hyphens be a problem in writing?

Yes, using too many hyphens can make your writing look cluttered and difficult to read. Try to use hyphens sparingly and only when necessary.

Is it necessary to use a hyphen in all compound adjectives?

Yes, it’s necessary to use a hyphen in all compound adjectives to clarify their meaning and prevent confusion.

Can I use a space instead of a hyphen in a compound word?

No, you should not use a space instead of a hyphen in a compound word. Doing so can lead to confusion or misinterpretation.

Do different style guides have different rules for using hyphens?

Yes, different style guides may have slightly different rules for using hyphens. It’s important to consult the style guide that is most appropriate for your context or audience.

Are there any words that should never be hyphenated?

There are some words that should never be hyphenated, such as “very”, “only”, and “really”. These words are adverbs and are typically used to modify an adjective or another adverb.

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