Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? That is the question . . . The truth is, when trying to decide whether a hyphen needs to join two words, quite often grammar rules are not black and white, and in many instances you can decide for yourself. In general, British dictionaries and publishers are more inclined to hyphenate words than their American counterparts. In fact, most grammar issues are dictated by style. Style guides are put together by editors or university departments to define how they want their writers/students to handle writing and grammar issues that may arise.

Joining words with hyphens (such as ‘girl-friend’ and ‘wide-spread’) is becoming less frequent as many are now being fused. However, when two words together modify another word, they are often hyphenated. For example, in the phrase ‘large-scale installation’, the words ‘large’ and ‘scale’ are connected with a hyphen, and as a single unit the two words together modify ‘installation’ (‘large’ modifies ‘scale’: the scale is large). This is standard practice when one modifier modifies another to form a single modifier to a noun or verb. Simple?

Compound adjectives are two or more words that are hyphenated when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea.

an off-campus lecture

a turn-of-the-century ceramic

a 30-year-old female

a five-part series

It’s always safest to check with the dictionary of your choice; but the best test is whether hyphenation will enhance meaning and avoid ambiguity. A hot water bottle is a bottle that is hot, but a hot-water bottle defines a rubber container that when filled with hot water provides warmth (a hottie). Also, ‘running mate’ needs no hyphen, but does as an adjective, as in ‘running-mate rules’.

When it comes to prefixes (a-, un-, de-, ab-, sub-, post-, anti-, etc.), there is usually a hyphen between the prefix and the next word:






Many words that start with the prefix ‘re’ don’t require a hyphen: recrown, redrawn, rehire, reheat, repaint, repurpose; but a hyphen can change the meaning of a word:

She will relay to message to you.
I have to re-lay the carpet.

Similarly: re-sent/resent; re-press/repress; re-present/represent; re-strain/restrain


 Writing numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine requires hyphenation.

I decided to hang thirty-three of the Gallery’s eighteenth-century English paintings.

There are more than one hundred Post-Impressionist paintings in the exhibition.


Adverb-adjective combinations are not normally hyphenated, but the grammar rules vary from one style guide to another. The adverb ‘well’ is a prime example: many style guides insist that combinations such as ‘well understood concept’ should not be hyphenated; others insist on hyphenating combinations such as well-known actor but not if the combination comes after the noun: the actor is well known.

Also, when an adverb ending in ly follows an adjective there’s no need to hyphenate. Technically, finely-tuned is incorrect (there should be no hyphen). The following is a good example:

A stylishly dressed host

I use the Wiley & Sons Australian Style Guide and this is what they advise:

Compound adjectives consisting of a participle or an adjective preceded by an adverb ending in ly are not hyphenated, but when the adverb in such a compound does not end in ly, the expression is usually hyphenated:

        a well-known book

a fast-flowing river      

If a compound of this kind is modified—by very, exceptionally or particularly, for instance—a hyphen is never used:

A very well known dancer

When grammar experts contradict each other, what hope is there for mere mortals?


Noun plus noun compounds (I would hyphenate ‘noun-plus-noun’) such as gallery-goer or owner-driver where both nouns have equal status, and hocus-pocus (rhyming expressions), need hyphenation.


When joining a letter to a word use a hyphen; for example, X-ray, A-list and T-intersection.


‘Hanging’ hyphens are used to connect two words to a base word or number that they share.

Pre- or post- 1980

Full- or part-time jobs (although I prefer: full-time or part-time jobs)


And the rules go on and on . . .

I have chosen Germaine Greer’s ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’, published in 2007 by Bloomsbury (London), to extract a few examples of hyphenations.

The complex rhyme scheme closes each four-stressed end-stopped line with a delicate clunk.

Early-twentieth-century urban working class

Old women’s-magazine morality stories

At sun-up the village girls . . .

Co-ordinate off-stage


Long-lost twins

Three-bed chamber

Ninety-one years


Open-and-shut case




The last three examples would probably not be hyphenated by many writers or by American publishers.

And reading an article in the newspaper today I found these hyphenated and glued words:

worldview (would you have hyphenated and written world-view?)

Perhaps the end-of-history illusion . . .

Whether to hyphenate or not is often a dilemma for proofreaders . . . and just that word ‘proofreader’ can cause heated exchanges between proofreaders as to whether the word(s) should be hyphenated (proof-reader) or not.  General consensus is that the two words have merged into one word over time. But my bossy spell-check insists that I hyphenate it!




Still unsure? Why not meditate on the subject while you contemplate the mystery beyond the horizontal line in the featured painting by Mark Rothko: Untitled (Red), 1956, glue, oil, synthetic polymer paint and resin on canvas, 209.5 x 125.3 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.



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