This applies whether you’re writing advertising copy, a college or business report, a website or the next great novel; it’s these judgements that will determine the success or failure of your venture.

For example, would you buy a book if you flipped through the pages and found errors of grammar and spelling? Probably not. Such errors would detract from the credibility of what was written.

Good, solid writing skills are necessary whether you’re writing for business, college or fiction. In this article, I’m going to look at a frequently misunderstood area: hyphens.

Yes, it sounds dull, I admit it. Wait though, before being tempted to put this article to one side, and test yourself with these real-world questions:

Q1. Why do many dictionaries list ‘infra-red’ with a hyphen, but ‘ultraviolet’ without?

Q2. Why does only the first of the following sentences need a hyphen?
We will discuss public-safety issues.
We will discuss issues of public safety.

Q3. Which of these is the preferred spelling:
co-ordinator or coordinator?
mid 2010s or mid-2010s?
selfesteem, self-esteem or self esteem?

Are you certain of all your answers? If not, read on, and we’ll cover some simple guidelines for using hyphens. You’ll also find the answers to the questions above.

Simple Tips for Using Hyphens

1. The prefix ‘self’ is nearly always hyphenated. For example, self-esteem, self-image, self-conscious.

2. When the prefix ‘ex’ is used to mean former, it’s always hyphenated. For example, ex-wife, ex-premier, ex-treasurer.

3. Most of the time other prefixes don’t need a hyphen.

4. If the main word has an initial capital or is a number, then use a hyphen after the prefix. For example: post-1950, un-American, mid-1990s.

5. Hyphens are often used when a prefix would cause the doubling of a vowel. For example, co-opt or pre-empt. Modern usage is slowly eliminating some such hyphens though. For example, most modern dictionaries spell cooperate and coordinate without hyphens.

6. We sometimes use a hyphen after a prefix if the main word has only one syllable. For example, infra-red. By comparison, ultraviolet doesn’t need a hyphen (according to most dictionaries) because the main word is not one syllable.

7. We tend to hyphenate compound words only if they come before a noun, not after. For example, we write ‘a public-safety issue’ with a hyphen, but ‘an issue of public safety’ is written without one.

8. Most one-letter prefixes in English are followed by a hyphen. For example, X-ray, G-string and T-shirt.
Despite this, most dictionaries now list email (without the hyphen) as the primary spelling. Other words starting with the ‘e’ prefix (such as e-commerce or ebook) are sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not. Usage is inconsistent.

Armed with these simple guidelines, you’ll soon be using hyphens like an expert. Good luck!

— Tim North
You’ll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North’s much applauded range of e-books. More information is available on his website. 

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