when to use hyphens in a sentence

When to Use Hyphens in a Sentence

Maintaining good grammar and punctuation skills can make or break your long-term success in writing whether your main focus is social media content, work-related emails, blogs for your website, or any number of other situations. Learn when to use hyphens in a sentence and show how professional and detail-oriented your writing can be!

Your grammar and punctuation skills indicate to those you write your level of professionalism in your work and how detail-oriented you can be. When you write content filled with errors, it can indicate to your readers that you don’t care about what you’re creating, so being mindful of how you write is key.

But with so many different grammar rules and punctuation requirements when writing, it can be difficult to know how to use some of the lesser-known rules–especially when some punctuation marks look so similar and behave so differently like hyphens and dashes.

So let’s start by taking a closer look at hyphens to help you understand how to best use them in sentences, and help you become a more successful communicator in the long run.

What is a Hyphen?

A hyphen is a punctuation mark consisting of a single horizontal line that floats between two or more linked words or parts of words. Typically, hyphens are used specifically for compound words and line breaks. It’s important to learn when to use hyphens in a sentence.

They can be found in compound modifiers like “dog-friendly,” in a combination of a noun or article with a present participle as in “fast-acting,” in noun/past participle combinations like “community-based,” or in regular compound terms like “five-year-old” or “sister-in-law.”

The Difference Between Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens and dashes look very similar, so they may often be confused with each other. That’s why it’s very important to learn when to use hyphens in a sentence. Unfortunately, they are not interchangeable punctuation marks, so you need to be careful when hyphenating words in your sentences to use a hyphen and not a dash.

There are two common dash marks, the en dash and the em dash. The en dash has some functions that overlap with hyphens and is used for separating complex compound words and digits when listing numerical ranges. The em dash, on the other hand, denotes pauses in writing or interrupted dialogue in fiction writing.

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When to Use Hyphens in a Sentence

Let’s dive in to when to use hyphens in a sentence. There are several occasions when you need to use hyphens in a sentence. Let’s take a look at five key examples to demonstrate this.

When Using Compound Modifiers

Compound modifiers consist of two or more words that are linked together through the use of hyphens. This grouping allows readers to view the collection of words as a single unit of meaning rather than as separate entities. 

Typically, you will only need to group these units with hyphens if the grouped words are functioning as an adjective that modifies a noun after it. If the noun is listed before the hyphenated adjectives, the words do not need a hyphen.

Here are a few examples of when to use hyphens in a sentence:

  • His long-lost shoe was found.
  • Their coffee-loving aunt came to visit.
  • Her newly-built house is yellow.

However, you wouldn’t need to use hyphens in the following situations:

  • His shoe was found at long last.
  • Her yellow house is newly built.

When Combining a Noun or Adjective with a Present Participle

When you combine a noun or adjective with a present participle–a word that ends in “-ing”–the two work together to form a unit of meaning that describes another word. This combination must have a hyphen dividing the descriptor and present participle for the sentence to be grammatically correct. 

Additionally, the presence of the hyphen keeps readers from tripping over your sentences and struggling with any potentially confusing meaning.

For example, you would need to use a hyphen in each of the following sentences:

  • Her fast-acting medication prevented a headache.
  • Their home is filled with beautiful-looking artwork
  • His early-morning run lasted one hour.

However, it’s important to note that you may only use hyphens if the first word in your unit of meaning is a noun or an adjective. If you’re combining an adverb with a present participle, no hyphen is required.

  • She heavily decorated her home for Christmas.
  • His skillfully executed plan earned him a huge bonus.

When Combining Nouns with Past Participles

Like present participles, past participles combined with nouns also require hyphens in their sentences. But again, the hyphen is only required if the noun/past participle combination precedes the word it is modifying.

For example, you use hyphens in a sentence when the noun and past participle act like this:

  • Her community-based program helped hundreds of people.
  • Their machine-powered water pump works well.
  • His locally-sourced ingredients taste great.

When the compound noun/past participle comes after the noun, no hyphen is required:

  • Her program is community based.
  • Their water pump is machine powered.
  • His ingredients are locally sourced.

When Dividing Words on a Line Break

If you are drafting a newspaper article, magazine article, or other forms of written work that is limited in space, you may need to divide words across two lines to maximize your word count. Specific rules regarding this may vary depending on the style guidelines of what you’re writing and who you’re submitting it to, but typically they abide by the following rules:

  • Words are usually split after the first syllable. For example, “ex-tremely” rather than “e-xtremely.”
  • Already hyphenated words are split at the hyphen. For example “twenty-two” would remain as is and would not be modified to “twen-ty-two.”
  • If a word has a prefix or suffix, that may determine how it is split up. For example “pre-cooked.”

When Using Numbers

Whether you’re spelling out numbers or denoting fractions, you need to use a hyphen in your sentence. These can include such instances as:

  • He owns twenty-two chickens.
  • She half-wanted to leave early.
  • The recipe called for one-third of a cup of milk.

When Using Prefixes

If you are using words with prefixes, hyphens may be required. Commonly used prefixes may include “ex-,” “sub-,” “self-,” “anti,” and “all.” 

  • Her ex-husband owns a truck.
  • The cat is very self-centered.
  • No one should be all-powerful.

Additionally, when the terms “high” and “low” are used as prefixes, they also require hyphens.

  • High-interest loans should be avoided.
  • He has a low-level position in a law firm.

Other Compound Words

There are several other compound words and terms that require the presence of a hyphen in a sentence. Typically, these words are even listed with a hyphen’s presence in common dictionaries, so if you’re using a term that you believe needs a hyphen, but it doesn’t meet any of the above rules listed, consider doing a quick Google search or combing your dictionary to see if a hyphen is required.

A few common terms that require hyphenation include: 

  • Mother-in-law
  • Editor-in-chief
  • Six-pack
  • Factory-Made

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