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Term Definition

Hyphen is the punctuation sign (-) used to join words to indicate that they have a combined meaning or that they are linked in the grammar of a sentence (as in pick-me-up, rock-forming), to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line, or to indicate a missing or implied element (as in short- and long-term).

Meaning of a hyphen

A hyphen (-) is a punctuation mark most commonly used for linking words together, such as compound modifiers that are placed before nouns in a sentence. When a word needs to be split at a line break due to character limits on a given page of text, a hyphen is used to separate words between the most convenient syllables.

The hyphen is not to be confused with dashes like the en dash (–) and em dash (—), which are thinner, longer, and used for parenthetical purposes. Of similar resemblance, but serving a much different purpose to the hyphen, is the minus sign.

Hyphen - Examples of proper use

A hyphen should be used to link any modifiers representing the same idea that precede a noun in a clause:

  • Their stop-gap measure provided a short-term fix to a long-term problem.
  • Your clean-living, clear-eyed, clever, level-headed brother.
  • Chart-based analysis of American record-buying habits indicated that England's punk-fueled Class of '77 wouldn't amount to a trans-Atlantic phenomenon on par with the Beatles-led British Invasion.

Hyphens are also necessary for linking prefixes and suffixes to adjectives:

  • Something about his ill-arranged office was very mal-adaptable for me.
  • In the pre-New Wave era, it was quite daring to fuse neo-jazz complexity with post-psychedelic experimentation.
  • Their bi-coastal reunion tour wouldn't be so ultra-steeped in ballad material had radio not focused solely on their non-rock tracks.

Hyphens are needed when a word must be split—either due to formatting or space limits—at the end of a line of text: 

I didn't think he'd re-

act this way to the in-

formation about glo-

bal warming.

Additional rules and information

Hyphens should always be used with compound modifiers that precede a noun, especially if the modifier is a somewhat unorthodox phrase that would otherwise leave readers confused:

  • My last eBay customer was a no-payer, so I put him on my ban-list.
  • She can do all the wind-dating, jump-courting, and leap-eloping that she dreams of, just not on my romantic time-table.

Hyphens should also be used with miscellaneous compounds in which a nameless things is referred to with a combination of several words:

  • I believe that the default-album-list-settings should be changed from date-of-creation to time-of-last-update.
  • My death-warmed-over complexion in those photos was a stylistic choice, since I was going through a goth-punk-with-a-1920s-fixation phase at the time.

When a compound modifier follows the noun, a hyphen isn't necessary:

  • Use hyphen: He was a non-grata individual.
  • Don't use hyphen: He was persona non grata.

The hyphen isn't needed in modifiers where an adjective follows an adverb that ends with the letters ly:

  • Use hyphen: It happened a super-long time ago, so I only have half-complete memories of the event.
  • Don't use hyphen: It was a merrily gay holiday, though I dumped my psychotically deranged lover.

When spelling out the age of a person or thing, two hyphens are needed unless the word "year" is in plural form:

  • Use hyphen: My 15-year-old daughter has the hots for James Dean, whose untimely death was an 18-year-old news story at the time of my birth.
  • Don't use hyphen: I'm six years older than my father was when he divorced my mother, who was 10 years younger than my current age at the time.
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Synonyms: hyphen

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