When Do I Need a Hyphen?

Hyphens can be pretty confusing. When are you supposed to use hyphens, and when are they unnecessary or even incorrect? This quick and easy guide will have you feeling hyphen-tastic in no time. (And yes, I went there.)

Two Words as an Adjective

If you’re using two (or more) words as an adjective – that’s a word that describes something else – it’s called a compound modifier and should be hyphenated. If the words come after the noun – the thing you’re describing – you don’t need to hyphenate. Here are a few examples:

  • That is a well-known editor.
  • That editor is well known.
  • Do we have an up-to-date record?
  • Are our records up to date?
  • Too bad that good-looking boy is so foul mouthed.
  • Too bad that foul-mouthed boy is so good looking.

Before the noun, it’s hyphenated. After the noun, it’s not.


Some prefixes, like self-, ex-, mid-, and all-, should always be used with a hyphen. The suffix -elect needs a hyphen, as well. For example:

  • I can’t believe my ex-husband is the president-elect!
  • The all-powerful genie granted my wish to always look like I’m in my mid-twenties.

Chicago, MLA, and APA style hyphenate things differently, so look it up if you’re using a specific format.

Avoid Confusion

Sometimes a hyphen is necessary to avoid confusion. For example, re-sign and resign have different meanings. Here are a few instances in which the use of a hyphen completely changes the meaning of the sentence.

  • I once saw a man-eating chicken.
  • I once saw a man eating chicken.
  • I’d like to date 18-year-old women.
  • I’d like to date 18 year-old women.
  • There are thirty-odd people in my bedroom.
  • There are thirty odd people in my bedroom.

If you’re in doubt, look it up. Hyphens are a tricky punctuation mark, and the ‘rules’ are often changing. Take ‘playgroup,’ for example.

  • My kids are in a playgroup.
  • My kids are in a play group.
  • My kids are in a play-group.

Your reader will understand any one of these sentences. The most important thing is consistency. Pick the spelling you want to use and stick with it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go deal with thirty odd people in my bedroom.

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