What is a hyphen?

Hyphens have lots of uses, but simply put, they make it easy to spot a word that should be linked together when you’re reading!

Jessica Milner

Author
Jessica Milner

Published
December 4, 2023

What is a hyphen?

Hyphens have lots of uses, but simply put, they make it easy to spot a word that should be linked together when you are reading.

Jessica Milner

Author
Jessica Milner

Published
Dec 4, 2023

What is a hyphen?

Hyphens have lots of uses, but simply put, they make it easy to spot a word that should be linked together when you are reading.

Jessica Milner

Author
Jessica Milner

Published
Dec 4, 2023

Key takeaways

  • Hyphens are used to help the reader understand what is being said
  • Hyphens and dashes are two different things
  • Hyphens help us compound words – this means stick two or more words together

Today we’re going to learn all about hyphens. Hyphens are those little lines you sometimes see between words. They’re used to join up two words to show that we want to use them together.

Hyphens are different to dashes. Keep reading to find out the meaning of a hyphen, when to use a hyphen and the difference between a hyphen and a dash!

What is a hyphen?

Hyphens make words, phrases or sentences easier to understand for the reader. They clearly show that two or more words are linked together.

Most of the time, we use hyphens to join words together. Some words mean something entirely different with or without the use of a hyphen!

For example…

The teacher resigned her contract (The teacher gave up her job) 

VS.

The teacher re-signed her contract (The teacher signed her work contract again)

Hyphens are placed between the words with no spaces between them.

Re-wrote

Seventy-six

Remember, you can always download our great English app to learn more!

Explore hyphens with DoodleEnglish

DoodleEnglish is an interactive English app that’s filled with thousands of questions and games covering reading, grammar, spelling and more!

Created by our team of teachers, it creates each child a personalised work programme tailored to their needs, boosting their confidence a little every day. Try it free today!

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Hyphen symbol

The hyphen symbol is one short line that hovers between two words.

You don’t need to put a space between the hyphen and either of the words.

On a computer keyboard you press the key one time. If you press it more than once, it becomes a dash.

Hyphen symbol: –

Hyphenated word examples

Here are some examples of hyphenated words.

  • Twenty-two
  • Father-in-law
  • Check-in
  • Empty-handed
  • Sister-in-law
  • Step-dad
  • Forty-eight
  • Merry-go-round
  • Mind-blowing
  • Nitty-gritty
  • Word-of-mouth
  • Life-size

When to use a hyphen

Hyphens have many uses. They can appear in almost every style of writing: in stories, books, poems and when we read leaflets and information booklets.

One of the most important things to remember when learning when to use a hyphen is to be consistent. If you use a hyphen one way in a piece of writing, make sure you use it all the way through that piece of writing and don’t change the way you use it.

Why?

Well, that’s easy: we use hyphens to highlight things and help our readers. If we use hyphens in the same way throughout our writing, it makes it much easier for a reader to know what they’re looking at!

Hyphens have several uses:

Between numbers

We use hyphens between larger number combinations when we write them as letters. This makes them easier to read and simpler to figure out which number is which – especially when listing numbers!

Remember: We only use hyphens when writing out two-word numbers from twenty-one – ninety-nine. We don’t use hyphens in hundreds, thousands or any higher numbers.

Let’s see for ourselves how it helps – check out this list of numbers.

Forty five, seventy eight, fifty five, sixty three, seventy four, eighty eight, twenty four

Now have a look at them hyphenated.

Forty-five, seventy-eight, fifty-five, sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-eight, twenty-four

Can you see how much easier it is to spot the numbers when we add a hyphen?

Compound adjectives

Woah, big word here! Have no fear – it’s very simple.

Compound means ‘stuck together’. In a compound adjective, the word compound simply means ‘add a hyphen’. The hyphen sticks the two words together, so the reader can see that the words are joined.

Adjectives tell us all about a noun; they help us describe it by telling us its size, shape, age or colour. Or where it came from, what it does or what it’s made of.

If you need to recap what a noun is, we’ve got you! Be sure to check out our handy guide to nouns.

A compound adjective is an adjective that is two or more nouns stuck together with a hyphen. 

It’s much easier just to have a look sometimes, and this is one of those times. 

Here are some examples of compound adjectives:

  • Eye-opening
  • Quick-thinking
  • Nail-biting
  • Ice-cold
  • Left-handed
  • Last-minute
  • Good-looking

It’s important to note that not all compound adjectives have a hyphen: some are just squished next to each other, like ‘waterproof’ and ‘seasick’!

Informal phrases

We can use hyphens within informal phrases too. Here are some examples:

  • La-de-dah
  • Whoop-de-doo
  • Traa-laa-laa
  • Wishy-washy

Simplify letter combinations

When we have two of the same vowels (A, E, I, O U) in a word, it can look very confusing! Hyphens help us to read words easily that have double vowels, especially when due to a prefix.

For example:

  • Deescalated becomes de-escalated
  • Reelect becomes re-elect


We might also use them in general to show clearly that we have added a prefix, especially when that prefix comes before a noun (we don’t usually use hyphens before a suffix).

For example, repair becomes re-pair

Can you see how, in the above example, the hyphen is also changing the word’s meaning?

To show where a word is separated by a new line of text

We can use hyphens when we run out of space on the paper we are writing on. If we get ha-

lfway through a word if it should be one full word, we use a hyphen to show the reader they should stick the two pieces together and keep it as one word – such as the example of ‘halfway’ we just used!

This helps a lot if you are writing big, long words on a small piece of paper, such as:

supercalifragilis-
ticexpialidocious’.

To show where a word is spelled out by letter

We can also use hyphens to show how to spell out a word. 

This is good when we’re teaching reading and pronunciation, and also if we want to show how people are speaking in a book or on a script for a TV show or song.

For example:

B-A-N-A-N-A-S

 

WOWZERS – that was a lot of ways to use one little line!

Once you start seeing hyphens in your reading, or maybe in class at school, it gets much easier to recognise them.

Maybe you could make up a song about hyphens to help you remember?

Hyphen vs. dash: what's the difference?

Even though a hyphen (-) and a dash (–) might look very similar, the difference is in how they’re used! It’s easy to tell the difference between a hyphen and a dash.

A hyphen is a punctuation mark we use to show when two words link together. A hyphen is one small line like this: – (tap once on the keyboard).

A dash is a punctuation mark we use to show a break in a sentence or a pause. There are two types of dash:

en dash: – (tap twice on the keyboard)

An en dash is used to replace the word ‘to’ in a sentence. For example: 

The train goes all the way from Germany to Prague.

Can change to

Train: Germany – Prague

em dash: — (tap three times on the keyboard)

An em dash is used to show a break in a sentence or to point to extra information (sometimes it’s used a little like brackets or commas).

For example:

She was horrified at the way he buttered his bread — thick like peanut butter — but she didn’t say anything.

If you aren’t sure or find it tricky to remember, you can always use our rhyme:

Hi friend – hyphen links two together!

En dash – shows you where to go!

Em dash — the longest, gives us time to pause!”

Summary

Well done for today! You’ve learned a lot about hyphens.

The more times you see hyphens being used, the more you’ll understand how to use them yourself. Finally, remember that a hyphen isn’t the same as a dash!

Try DoodleEnglish for free!

Lesson credits

Jessica Milner

Jessica Milner

This decade is a super exciting one for EdTech, and I'm lucky enough to be right in the middle of it. I've used green screens as an English teacher in Vietnam, written children’s books that wow and motivate, been the head scriptwriter for a popular children's EdTech app and been an all-dancing-all-singing online teacher! I believe in making education inviting and accessible to all. My ethos is: we're all different and we all learn differently, so why not lay out a smorgasbord of educational treats and dig in!

Jessica Milner

Jessica Milner

This decade is a super exciting one for EdTech, and I'm lucky enough to be right in the middle of it. I've used green screens as an English teacher in Vietnam, written children’s books that wow and motivate, been the head scriptwriter for a popular children's EdTech app and been an all-dancing-all-singing online teacher! I believe in making education inviting and accessible to all. My ethos is: we're all different and we all learn differently, so why not lay out a smorgasbord of educational treats and dig in!

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