Top Punctuation Howlers – The Hyphen

Is your mother in law (e.g., a lawyer or a judge)? Or is it your mother-in-law?

Perhaps it’s lost in the shadow of more grandiose punctuation marks, such as the apostrophe, comma, or semicolon, but the hyphen is a fantastic tool.

Not to be confused with the dash (which is deployed to separate ideas or sections in a sentence), the hyphen is used to join words together to make new ones and to link syllables when a word breaks off at the end of a line and continues on the next. More importantly, the hyphen brushes away ambiguity. For instance, when you tell your boss you want to re-sign your contract, he won’t think you wanted to resign instead.

Try out these hyphen usage tips to maintain your credibility and provide your readers with a little clarity!

Do Use the Hyphen in These Scenarios

– Use a hyphen for compound modifiers (2 or more words used to modify a noun) or compound adjectives that occur before the noun.*

John, pass me the ibuprofen. His out-of-tune bagpipes are giving me a headache.
His bagpipes are horrendously out of tune. John, pass me the ibuprofen.

*Exception: Use a hyphen if the compound modifier or compound adjective follows any form of the verb to be (e.g., is, are, etc.) For example: He is well-known.

– Use a hyphen if the phrase doubles vowels or triples consonants.

Normville’s ultra-average citizens hold the record for maintaining the national average.
The shell-like exterior of the dung beetle protects it from being easy prey.

– Use a hyphen with fractions (unless it’s already hyphenated, e.g., forty-four hundredths) and numbers ending in y.

I swear that dog is two-thirds canine, one-third demon.
You won sixty-three coconuts, and twenty-four umbrellas!

– Use a hyphen when using a number (not spelled out) and a unit of measurement to form an adjective or with spelled out money figures.

We unearthed a dozen thirty-five-year-old zombie films and then had a 24-hour marathon.
His haunted eyes above his four-o’clock shadow were telling of his stressful day.

– Use a hyphen with dual-heritage adjectives.

The archaeologist found artifacts from the Greco-Roman period.
My father is Austro-Hungarian and my mother is Italian-American.

– Use a hyphen if the word like is the latter half of the compound.

The doll’s life-like eyes were disturbing; I locked it in the cupboard.

Hyphen Blunders and Howlers

– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound occurs after the noun (unless it occurs after the verb to be).

The salesman sold his door-to-door wares.
The salesman sold his wares by walking door to door.

– Don’t use a hyphen if both words of the compound phrase make sense separately (even before a noun).

Janet’s naughty old cat got into the bakery again.

– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound phrase includes the word very.

“What a very chic scarf!” Harriet exclaimed to Susan. “A very expensive scarf it was …” Susan’s husband muttered under his breath.

– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound begins with an adverb ending in -ly.

Bob’s mother had freakishly coiffed hair that stood so high, it brushed the ceiling.

– Use a hyphen with the following family names: in-law, ex, and great. Don’t use a hyphen with the following family names: step, half, and grand.

My mother-in-law claimed her half sister had a great-aunt whose grandmother’s ex-husband met President Lincoln.

Accident-Prone Prefixes

Prefixes are a little tricky and it’s often best to just look it up, but we won’t leave you without a few clues:

– Use a hyphen to change or preserve the meaning of the root word (often used in prefixes pre, pro, and re).

I’m going to re-sign.
I’m going to resign.

Self and quasi always accompanied by a hyphen.

Peter Parker’s self-effacing behavior is to make people pay no attention to him.

– Unless in the presence of a capitalized word (e.g., anti-Antarctica) or if you are preserving the meaning of the word, don’t use a hyphen with the following prefixes:

Anti, bi, co, extra, inter, micro, mini, multi, mid, non, over, post, pre, pro, re, semi, sub, super, trans, ultra, un, and under.

There are TONS of exceptions and most style guides recommend using the hyphen sparingly. If you only use the hyphen when the context is ambiguous, you should be safe. Don’t forget to watch out for those spellcheck programs; they are not infallible! Use these hyphen tips to strengthen your writing skills, as well as maintain your credibility as an Expert Author. We will have more punctuation howlers coming up in the next few weeks, so stop by the Blog for the latest and greatest tips to error-free articles.

Did you miss our last edition of Top Punctuation Howlers? Find out more about the quotation mark here!


Joe Helms writes:

Wow, this one was complex!

This also explains why of all the punctuation, I always felt most unsure about the hyphen.

Of all the punctuation rules / howler posts so far, this is definitely one I won’t be able to remember without referencing it again.. and again…

Thanks. This was – and will be – quite useful!

(minor issue – the example with ‘great aunt’ doesn’t have a hyphen, even though the sentence above says to use one with ‘great’)

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 10:15 AM



I agree with Joe. This post reveals lots of do and don’ts that can be quite confusing. I am sure that most of us have used the hyphen incorrectly at times. I don’t recall ever seeing such a complete explanation of how and where to use the hyphen.

Thanks for all your educational posts.


Dr. Erica

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 12:51 PM


Pauline Swanson writes:

Thank you for a very interesting article. I am wondering if you could clarify for me the ruling for plurals. I always believed that the plural for “brother-in-law” is “brothers-in-law” however I often see it written as “brother-in-laws”.

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 6:16 PM


Hi Pauline,

Great question.

You are right, the plural term for brother-in-law would be brothers-in-law in this case.

Hope this helps!




Thanks for showing me a few ways to properly use a hyphen when writing articles, it should come in handy when I start submitting my content again.

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 7:05 PM


Randall Magwood writes:

I use hyphens all the time in my article writing. The “mother-in-law” example above sticks with me now because of the use of the hyphens.

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 8:15 PM


Nadav Rotchild writes:

Some things in this article are true and important, but some are more ambiguous. For example:

“I’m going to re-sign.
I’m going to resign.”

This is not a good example. “I am going to resign my papers” is seldom used in modern English, so the comparison here is wrong.


This example is incorrect. You don’t need to use a hyphen here since the word o’clock specifically marks the word before it as time-related.


Sorry but this is just not proper English. It uses hyphens in an abusive way.

Comment provided September 7, 2012 at 8:43 PM


Joe Helms writes:

@Nadav Rotchild:

You are the one that added ‘.. my papers’ to the end of the example. Regardless, it’s hardly Shakespearean language; I think most fluent English speakers should be able to understand the example.

“..his four-o’clock shadow were”
I’ve looked around, and it appears that when the time is used in an adjectival compound, you do indeed use a hyphen. “It is four o’clock.”, on the other hand, does not require one.

Again, after doing some follow-up research, I came to the conclusion that the original article is correct. You did not offer an alternative. What do you think it should be?


Nadav Rotchild writes:

“You are the one that added ‘.. my papers’ to the end of the example”

Of course I did. In order to raise an example I had to change that sentence. The sentence “I’m going to re-sign.” is not a proper English sentece by itself. It needs the object of the “re-signing” to make sense. And I still firmly believe that “re-sign” isn’t a natural word that one would say on a daily basis.

And about your comment on “thirty-five-year-old”… What do you mean by “you did not offer an alternative”?
You should just use the words “thirty five years old” or “35 years old” without trying to lump them all into one long word.


Jean Kearsley writes:

Nadav ~

First point: of course “I’m going to re-sign.” is a proper English sentence. There’s no rule saying every sentence with a transitive verb has to contain the object of that verb, particularly when obvious in context: “The question of extending my contract came up in our discussion last night, and I think I’ve made the right decision. I’m going to re-sign.” Despite any firm belief on your part, there’s a context where the presence or absence of the hyphen is critical to the meaning.

Second point: your “alternative” isn’t really one, since you’ve pulling a bait-&-switch. You’ve changed the question from determining the proper form of an adjectival phrase to the best way to construct a sentence (as in the very first example, re the out-of-tune bagpipes). And consider how, without hyphens, one could discriminate between “We unearthed thirty-five-year-old zombie films” from “We unearthed thirty five-year-old zombie films.”


Jean Kearsley writes:

One point I meant, but neglected, to cover in the remarks above. If you don’t think “re-sign” is a word likely to ever be used on a daily basis, you have evidently neither generated nor read, watched, or listened to much professional sports news coverage, particularly around the time of trading deadlines.


Sara Turgeman writes:

I’m a content editor and these punctuation tips are so helpful for me. There are always grey areas and these articles really explain the rules clearly.

Is this the place for suggestions? I would like to see an article about capital letters.

Keep up the good work!

Comment provided September 8, 2012 at 12:13 AM


Hi Sara,

Thank you for your suggestion! We recently did a post on what to capitalize in the title of your articles found here:

Hope this helps!



Barry Dawson writes:

Contrary to the above instructions, I still prefer to hyphenate co-operate.

Comment provided September 8, 2012 at 6:13 AM


Jean Kearsley writes:

In this case, I think you have to recognize “nested rules” — the one requiring the use of a hyphen when a combination doubles a vowel overrides the more generic one about the prefix “co” not normally necessitating a hyphen.


Karen writes:

Learnt a lot from this post. Some I wasn’t sure. I think I should print it out as guidance. Thanks.

Comment provided September 8, 2012 at 10:04 AM


Araceli writes:

Very useful information for me ! :) Tnx :)

Comment provided September 8, 2012 at 12:20 PM


Tejal Parikh writes:

Very useful info indeed!!

Comment provided September 10, 2012 at 4:12 AM


Hilde Schjerven writes:


Comment provided September 16, 2012 at 5:47 PM


Dave Haslett writes:

A couple of other errors in this post.

1. Isn’t the word “it” missing in the first sentence?
i.e. Is it your mother in law?

2. duel-heritage adjectives should be dual-heritage. A duel is a fight between rivals.

Comment provided September 16, 2012 at 8:00 PM


Vijay Khosla writes:

Very useful article. Learnt a lot as well as enjoyed reading it.

Comment provided September 17, 2012 at 12:46 AM


Lisa N writes:

I can’t agree with you no more, It makes me upset.

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 12:04 AM


Christoph writes:

I was hoping to find in the hyphen article an explanation of how to hyphenate multiple words in a row, such as
bad-weather-related condition: is is spelled like this or bad weather-related condition? It appears to me that because the weather is bad and not the condition this example does require two hyphens. Correct? And then it also would be 25-year-old and not 25 year-old. Right?

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 11:41 AM


bate papo writes:

Great visualization and unique informative article indeed.

Comment provided October 6, 2012 at 5:09 AM



I think I should learn to how to use The Hyphen correctly.

Comment provided October 14, 2012 at 9:16 PM


Edward A Dundon writes:

October 21, 12

Dear Kamaldeen Abubakar

I have a query re hyphens. You state to use a hyphen with the verb to be, eg is, was, were. For example, ‘He is well-known’, they are ‘well-behaved’, etc. I though this use does not merit a hyphen.
In a quizz I read recently, the writer states that a hyphen is not needed in the phrase:
‘John liked to find authors who were well-known in their genres’. He states that the hyphen is incorrect here.
Can you please assist.

Anthony Dundon

Comment provided October 21, 2012 at 12:50 PM


Jean Kearsley writes:

Anthony ~

I think you meant to address your query to the author of the article — presumably Penny — but it appears it’s addressed to the person commenting last before yourself.

That said, let me jump in here with a suggestion. In the second example you gave, I would agree with whomever said that was an incorrect use of the hyphen. However, I think it would be appropriate if the sentence read, “John liked to find well-known authors.” See the pair of examples above, immediately under the heading “Hyphen Blunders and Howlers.” I think the same rule about [potentially hyphenated] modifiers being before or after “the noun” applies equally to pronouns filling in for same. (Though you could recast your sentence as “John liked to find authors well known in their genres,” and the same rule would apply.)

I agree, though, with the exception for the verb ‘to be’ and its declensions. “He is well-behaved” is a valid alternative to “he behaves well.”

Comment provided October 22, 2012 at 1:45 PM


Alain writes:

This article was very intensive. Mostly, it made me realize how little I know. To think that there are just so many variation of a single hyphen is mind-blowing. The more I read, the more ignorant I feel.

Thank you for the great work

Comment provided January 16, 2013 at 8:59 AM


Alton Saunders writes:

You say: “Use a hyphen when using a number (not spelled out) and a unit of measurement to form an adjective”. Does this still apply when the adjective complex is being used as a noun? E.g. “She is only a five-year-old.”

Comment provided May 4, 2014 at 12:32 PM


Hi Alton,

This is a great question!

When the age modifies the noun it comes before or when the age itself is a noun, then hyphenate (e.g., “She is only a five-year-old” or “Jane is a five-year-old little girl”). However, if the age occurs after the noun as a part of an adjective phrase, then don’t hyphenate (e.g., “She is five years old”).



New York Knifedealer writes:

You correctly advise that the hyphen is used at the end of a line to link syllables when a word breaks off at that point and you caution your readers of the shortcomings of spellcheck.

A colleague at an agency I once worked at wrote an article reviewing a lecture on child abuse that was delivered by a highly respected local therapist. A sentence in the article read something like:

“The speaker was therapist Dr. John Doe.”

The entire article was shipped off to the print shop, where the text was formatted into narrow columns, suitable for publication in the agency’s quarterly newsletter. The word “therapist” broke across two lines and spellcheck worked its magic resulting in a sentence that read:

“The speaker was the-
rapist Dr. John Doe.”

The error went unnoticed until it was too late.

Spellcheck is not always your friend.

Comment provided June 17, 2014 at 8:06 AM


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