When should you hyphenate? 5 things to know

To some they’re fussy and best kept to a minimum. To others, they’re a mark of precision and subtle meaning.

To me? Well, I’m a copywriter. So I try to use hyphens the same way I write everything – in the most reader-friendly way I can.

You might guess that puts me firmly in the “keep hyphens to a minimum” camp. But the copy I write also represents our clients’ businesses. It needs to be professional and correct.

This July, I’ll have been working as a copywriter for 10 years. Rightly and wrongly, I’ve typed an awful lot of hyphens in my time.

Here are 5 things I’ve learnt about hyphenation. If you’re puzzled about when to hyphenate, I hope these can help.

1. Do hyphenate a phrase that modifies the next noun

  1. “Your state-of-the-art theatre”
  2. “An end-to-end solution”
  3. “Those out-of-date eggs”

In these examples, the hyphenated phrase is modifying the next word as though it were a single-word adjective. We hyphenate here to show all the words in the phrase are acting as a single grammatical element. The meaning is clearer this way.

2. Don’t hyphenate phrases with intensifiers

  1. “A really good meal” vs. “a really-good meal”
  2. “The best value solution” vs. “the best-value solution”
  3. “Ultra high performance” vs. “ultra-high performance”

So, should we should pick the hyphenated option in these three examples? They’re all phrases acting as a single modifier… but are those hyphens really giving us any value?

Hyphenating doesn’t make the meaning any clearer in these instances. It just complicates the copy slightly. It’s up to you, but some experts suggest leaving them out – because simpler writing is usually better.

3. Don’t hyphenate common phrases when they aren’t modifying anything

Here are the examples again for Tip #1 again, slightly re-jigged… except now they don’t need hyphens.

  1. Your theatre is state of the art.
  2. A solution that works end to end.
  3. Those eggs are out of date.

It can seem like the words in phrases like “out of date” and “state of the art” just belong together. But they don’t need to be hyphenated unless they’re functioning like one word.

4. Check evolving rules for compound words

  1. Pigeon-hole vs. pigeonhole
  2. Ice-cream vs. ice cream

Language is always evolving. Compound words that were once hyphenated tend to drop their hyphen if they become popular enough. Sometimes they join up as a single word, as in pigeonhole. Other times they separate, like in ice cream.

Authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary strongly influence rules for hyphenating compounds. Check a recent dictionary if you’re in doubt.

5. Follow your style guide and aim for consistency

  1. Real time vs. real-time
  2. Multithreading vs. multi-threading

Some specialist compound words aren’t common enough to be in the dictionary, so there aren’t any standard rules for hyphenating them. The world of computing is full of these.

“Multithreading” is a good example. IBM spells it as one word, but it’s often hyphenated too. Which is correct? There’s no definitive answer. All you can do is check your internal style guide and previous usage – or, failing that, make your own decision and stick with it for consistency’s sake.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any of your own favourite tips on using hyphens, or have a question about hyphenating I didn’t cover here, please leave a comment below!

Author: Neil Wheatley

Copywriter since 2008, specialist in IT, software and video game marketing, dad to Wolfie and Rock.

9 thoughts on “When should you hyphenate? 5 things to know”

  1. Your breakdown of hyphens is highly simplistic and highlights a lack of creativity using the English language. I favour the two- -pronged hyphen approach that my maverick spirit dictates. Shakespeare created many new words in the English language and following in his footsteps I’ve created new grammatics. I’ll use hyphens when and how I choose and won’t be dictated to by a grammer Nazi such as yourself.

      1. I think he just wanted to use the word “Nazi” because it seems SO popular these days, and he had to get in on the craze. I tend to ignore all those who jump on this “Nazi” bandwagon … or should that be band-wagon?!! 😉 ? Your article was great and informative.

  2. Thanks for this Neil, my EFL students are regularly confused by when to hyphenate or not. Hopefully some of your ideas will help them make sense of it.

  3. Thanks. Very clear and helpful.
    My pet beef at the moment is incorrect hyphenation of ‘years old’ following a figure, e.g. she is 30-years-old. Presumably it started by someone misapplying a style guide for compound adjectives (‘a 30-year-old woman’) but the disease seems to be spreading. Even major newspapers and some popular authors who should know better have caught it.
    N.B. I am a translator but my work on real estate sales brochures often effectively involves copywriting. Don’t get paid any extra though!

  4. Excellent piece. Number one is particularly useful because it will help folks avoid a common error.

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