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    Introduce hyphens, why they are used, and common errors with hyphens.


    Explain standard rules for hyphenating numbers.


    Explain standard rules for hyphenating compound nouns and compound adjectives. 


This packet should help a learner seeking to understand how to use correct punctuation and who is confused about when to incorporate hyphens.  It will introduce hyphens and explain when they are commonly used in English composition.

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What's a Hyphen?

A hyphen is the sign (-) used to join words to indicate that they have a combined meaning or that they are linked in the grammar of a sentence (as in pick-me-up, rock-forming), to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line, or to indicate a missing or implied element (as in short- and long-term).


Why use a Hyphen?

Hyphens help clarify meaning.  For example a light purple bag is different from a light-purple bag.  Without the hyphen you are saying that you have a bag that is both purple and light.  With the hyphen you are saying that your bag is light-purple in color. 

Or let's say you've got twenty two year olds.  Without a hyphen, it is not clear if you mean that you run a day care and have twenty two-year-olds, or if you have twenty-two year olds applying for the job of nanny.


What are Common Hyphen Errors?

Hyphen errors simply come from putting then in the wrong spot or omitting them altogether.  Here are a few quick tips:

1. For adjectives, the trick is to make sure that words you've got linked by the hyphen are being used as one word to modify the noun.  When both words seperately modify the same noun, they are not hyphenated.

2. For nouns (and as a second check on all hyphens) a good dictionary is your best bet.

3. Do not use spaces around hyphens unless you have a list where one hyphenated item is being split: The pre- and post-game specials are a waste of time.

Source: Dictionary Version 2.1.2 (80.3) Copyright © 2005–2009 Apple Inc. and

Basic Rules for Hyphenating Numbers

Hyphenate simple fractions:






Hyphenate compound numbers from 21 through 99:




one thousand six hundred seventy-eight


Source: Made by me.

Basic Rules for Hyphenating Compound Adjectives and Nouns


A compound adjective is hyphenated if the hyphen helps the reader differentiate a compound adjective from two adjacent adjectives that each independently modifies the noun. Compare the following examples:

  • "a light-blue package": a package that is of the color light blue
  • "a light blue package": a package that is both light and blue

Hyphenate two or more words acting as a single adjective before a noun, but DO NOT hyphenate of they come after the noun.

  • light-blue package
  • a package that was light blue

Hyphenate an adjective preceding a noun to which -d or -ed has been addedand it is used before a noun:

  • loud-mouthed gangster

Hyphenate compound adjectives when consisting of a noun, adjective, or adverb preceding an -ing word:

  • a far-reaching consequences

Hyphenate compound adjectives that are colors

  • a seafoam-green shoes

Hyphenate compound adjectives with high- or low-:

  • high-level position

Hyphenate compound adjectives that are comparatives or  superlatives in compound adjectives (unless you are using more or most, less or least).

  • highest-placed team
  • most improved player

Hyphenate compound adjectives for effect

  • no-good-idiotic-I-wish-he'd-never-have-moved-in cheater



Compound nouns come in three types

  1. solid or closed (no space or hyphen between the words)
  2. open or spaced (a space, but no hyhen between the words)
  3. hyphenated (a hyphen between the words)

Usage often depends on where you are and the choice of the writer, so honestly a good dictionary is your best bet, but here are a few tips.

Hyphenate compound nouns that contain suffixes like -er, -ed, -ness


Hyphenate compund nouns that contain articles, prepositions or conjunctions

  • mother-in-law
  • rent-a-cop