Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? That is the question . . . Joining words with hyphens is becoming less frequent as many are now being fused as they become more well known, such as proofreader and girlfriend. 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, thereby becoming a single unit that more fully describes this specific ‘installation’.

Compound adjectives such as ‘gender-neutral ‘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

disease-free environment

a turn-of-the-century ceramic

a 30-year-old female

a five-part series

A hyphen is not required if a compound adjective consists of a comparative or superlative.

the student was well known (however, the well-known student)

the less educated employee

we considered the most likely scenario

Also, when an adverb ending in ly follows an adjective there’s no need to hyphenate. For example:

A stylishly dressed host

The heavily monitored environment

An oddly shaped parcel

However, when the compound adjective before the noun consists of a word ending in ly and is followed by a word ending in ing, then add the hyphen.

A friendly-looking security guard


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:






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

She will relay the message to you.

I have to re-lay the carpet.

re-cover (cover again)/recover (regain/restore health)

re-signed (signed again)/resigned (leave your job)

Here is something else to consider: A hot water bottle is a bottle that is hot, but a hot-water bottle defines its functionality: a rubber container that when filled with hot water provides warmth (a hottie).


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 Impressionist paintings in the exhibition.


Two hyphenated nouns create a single concept such as gallery-goer or owner-driver where both nouns have equal status, and hocus-pocus (rhyming expression).


When someone’s age is a noun, hyphenate.

That 90-year-old still runs marathons.

However, when age is part of a phrase after the noun, don’t hyphenate.

My neighbour is one hundred years old.

Her dog is nearly two years old.


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)

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art


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

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 in most modern dictionaries.


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