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Style Manual

Hyphens

Hyphens connect words and prefixes so meaning is clear to users. Refer to your organisation’s preferred dictionary if you are not sure if you need to use a hyphen for spelling.

Follow hyphenation rules in the dictionary your organisation uses

Hyphens clarify meaning by connecting words and parts of words into a single unit of meaning. Use hyphens to avoid ambiguity.

Example

‘a little used office’, but ‘a little-used office’

‘a unionised workforce’, but ‘an un-ionised particle’

There are few firm rules about using hyphens, and dictionaries do not always agree.

Use the dictionary your organisation recommends and follow its hyphenation practices.

Follow the accepted naming conventions for compass points, names of people and names of places.

Print considerations

Don’t break short words over a line, especially:

  • words of fewer than 6 letters
  • one-syllable words
  • 2-syllable words.

Break words between syllables so that the hyphen:

  • is between 2 components of a compound word (for example, ‘data-base’)
  • is between the base word and the suffix or prefix (for example, ‘neat-ness’)
  • comes before a consonant (for example, write ‘fic-tion’ not ‘fict-ion’) unless this is misleading (for example, write ‘draw-ings’ not ‘dra-wings’).

Don’t include extra hyphens if you need to break up URLs or email addresses. People could read them as part of the address.

Use the part of the word before the hyphen to suggest the rest of the word. Consider the vowels and consonants when breaking words over a line.

Write certain prefixes with a hyphen

Hyphens are useful in some sets of words formed with prefixes such as:

  • ‘anti-’
  • ‘auto-’
  • ‘counter-’
  • ‘extra-’
  • ‘intra-’
  • ‘re-’
  • ‘sub-’.

They’re especially useful for:

  • doubled-up vowels
  • clarifying new words that could be confused with existing ones.

A hyphen is used in some words with prefixes to distinguish them from words that would otherwise look the same.

Example

‘re-cover‘ [cover again], but ‘recover‘ [retrieve or regain]

‘re-creation‘ [create anew], but ‘recreation‘ [leisure-related activity]

‘re-signed‘ [signed again], but ‘resigned‘ [stepped down or acquiescent]

Sometimes a prefix such as ‘non-’, ‘pre-’ or ‘anti-’ acts on more than one word. If the phrase is already hyphenated, use a second hyphen to link the prefix to all words in the phrase.

Example

non-English-speaking countries

an anti-harm-minimisation stance

Doubled-up vowels

Use a hyphen when the last letter of a single-syllable prefix is a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel.

Write this

de-emphasise

pre-eminent

re-enter

Not this

deemphasise

preeminent

reenter

This practice is less important if a word is well known. Check a dictionary if you are unsure.

Write this

coordinate

cooperate

Not this

co-ordinate

co-operate

Double letters

Hyphens link a prefix or suffix to a word to avoid a double letter or prevent a misunderstanding.

Example

‘multi-item’, but ‘multilateral’

‘re-sign’ [sign again], but ‘resign’ [leave a job]

Capital letters

Hyphens link a prefix to a word that starts with a capital letter.

Example

un-Australian activities

pro-European

Vowel combinations

Don’t use hyphens if the 2 words end and start with different vowels. The combined word doesn’t place the same vowel together.

Example

prearrange

reallocate

triennial

Use a hyphen, however, if the prefix is attached to a single-syllable word beginning with a vowel. This punctuation means the vowels aren’t read as one sound.

Example

de-ice

Two-syllable prefixes ending in a vowel other than ‘o’ and followed by another vowel are often hyphenated. If the base word begins with a consonant, the term is usually written as one word.

Example

anti-aircraft, antisocial

semi-official, semicircular

Two-syllable prefixes ending in ‘o’ are often attached without a hyphen, regardless of what the base word starts with.

Example

macroeconomics, macrobiotic

monoamine, monocultural

radioactive, radiotherapy

retroactive, retrograde

Consonants

Two-syllable prefixes ending in a consonant are rarely followed by a hyphen.

Example

hyperlink, hyperrealism

interactive, interrelated

‘Co-’ and ‘ex-’ prefixes

Regardless of whether the rest of the word starts with a vowel:

  • Many words with the prefix ‘co-’, meaning ‘joint’, have hyphens after the ‘co’.
  • All words formed with ‘ex-’, meaning ‘former’, are hyphenated.
Example

co-author, co-worker

ex-councillor, ex-president

Follow the spelling in your preferred dictionary.

Numbers and italics with prefixes

Use a hyphen if a prefix is followed by a number or an expression that’s in italics.

Example

post-1960

the PNG Government’s anti-raskol measures

Write most suffixes without hyphens

Suffixes are normally attached directly to the base word without any hyphen. The commonest suffixes include:

  • -able
  • -ate
  • -ation
  • -fold
  • -ful
  • -ise
  • -ish
  • -ly
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -y.
Example

readable

colourful

costly

A hyphen precedes ‘-fold’ when that suffix is used with a numeral, but not a spelled out number.

Example

300-fold

threefold

Always use a hyphen with the suffix ‘-odd’, whether it’s with a word or numeral.

Example

There were 150-odd competitors.

Hyphenate some but not all compound words

A compound word consists of 2 or more words that carry a new meaning when used together.

Hyphens link elements of compound words as a phrase, but usually only when they are used before a noun as adjectives. Don’t use hyphens when the phrase is after the noun in the sentence structure.

Example

‘the up-to-date accounts’, but ‘the accounts are up to date’

‘small-business owners’, but ‘owners of small businesses’

‘an 11-year-old child, but ‘a child who is 11 years old’

Don’t confuse hyphens with dashes.

Compound nouns

Compound nouns make up the largest group of compound words. They can be made up of:

  • a verb and adverb
  • a verb and a noun
  • a noun and a noun
  • an adjective and a noun.

Most compound nouns don’t need hyphens because people already understand what the words mean together.

Verb and adverb combinations

Use a hyphen in compound nouns made up of a verb plus an adverb. This shows that the adverb is part of the compound rather than modifying other elements of the sentence.

Example

a shake-out

some make-up

the go-ahead for the project

For adverb–verb combinations, you don’t need a hyphen.

Example

bypass

downpour

uproar

input

Verb and noun combinations

Only a few compound nouns made up of a verb and a noun need hyphens. The following table has some examples, but use a dictionary if you are not sure.

Hyphenation rules for compound nouns made up of a verb and noun
Verb and noun combination Hyphenation Example
Verb with no suffix and noun (in either order) one word, no hyphen stingray, roadblock
Verb ending in ‘-ing’ or ‘-ed’ and noun 2 words, no hyphen flying doctor, shredded paper
Single-syllable noun and verb ending in ‘-ing’ or ‘-ed’ one word, no hyphen stocktaking, bookmarked
Multi-syllable noun and verb ending in ‘-ing’ or ‘-ed’* Use a hyphen or use 2 separate words (check a dictionary) profit-taking, potato growing
* The endings ‘-ing’ or ‘-ed’ show when the verb happened. Verbs with these endings are called ‘inflected verbs’. In this example, the verb ‘fly’ becomes ‘flying’, ‘shred’ becomes ‘shredded’.

Noun-plus-noun combinations

Use of hyphens in nouns-plus-noun compounds varies, even from dictionary to dictionary. These types usually have hyphens:

  • expressions in which each element has equal status, which describe one thing
  • expressions in which the elements rhyme
  • noun compounds involving prepositional phrases.
Example

owner-driver, city-state

hocus-pocus

editor-at-large, mother-in-law

Adjective plus noun combination

Compound nouns consisting of an adjective followed by a noun are usually written as 2 words.

Example

red tape

free will

Compound adjectives

Compound adjectives need hyphens if they are made up of either:

  • 2 adjectives
  • a noun and an adjective.
Example

bitter-sweet, icy-cold, red-hot [Two adjectives]

accident-prone, colour-blind, disease-free [Noun plus adjective]

It doesn’t matter whether the compound adjective comes before or after the noun it’s describing.

Hyphenate adjectival compounds made up of adverbial phrases when they come before the nouns, but not after.

Example

It was a dusk-to-dawn curfew. / The curfew lasted from dusk to dawn.

Don’t hyphenate adverbial phrases when they play an adverbial role.

Example

a newly discovered plant species

a happily married couple

Never use a hyphen for a compound modified by words such as ‘very’, ‘particularly’, ‘least’ or ‘most’.

Example

a very well known diplomat

a better known

a particularly diligent team member

the most advanced students

Sometimes, you might need to use a hyphen for clarification.

Example

The parents lobbied for more experienced staff. [Parents were asking for more staff who were also experienced.]

The parents lobbied for more-experienced staff. [Parents were asking for staff who were more experienced to replace the less experienced staff.]

Set phrases

Compound adjectives that are set phrases consisting of a noun plus a noun or an adjective plus a noun are not usually hyphenated.

Example

a tax office ruling

the stock exchange report

an equal opportunity employer

If the phrase is further modified, use a hyphen to prevent ambiguity.

Example

a retrospective tax-office ruling

the Tokyo stock-exchange report

a renowned equal-opportunity employer

Adjectives with verbs

Compound adjectives with present or past participles usually have a hyphen. Some of these well-established compounds are single words. They will be listed in a dictionary.

Example

a government-owned facility

a heart-rending image

airborne

everlasting

widespread

Hyphenate compound adjectives consisting of a participle or an adjective.

Example

a well-known book

a fast-flowing river

Don’t hyphenate a compound adjective made up of an adverb–verb combination if the adverb ends in ‘-ly’.

Example

an elegantly executed manoeuvre

a finely honed argument

Numbers and fractions

Use hyphens for compound adjectives involving numerals, spelt-out numbers and ordinal numbers.

Example

a 4-part series

a 21-gun salute

a third-storey office

If you need to write out numbers as words rather than numerals, use hyphens to link numbers from 21 to 99.

Example

twenty-one

two hundred and thirty-four

ninety-nine

Hyphens link parts of a fraction.

Example

‘one-half’, but ‘a half’

‘one-quarter’, but ‘a quarter’

Capitals, italics and question marks

Compound adjectives containing capital letters, italics or quotation marks are not usually hyphenated.

Example

a High Court decision

an in situ inspection

a ‘do or die’ attitude

Compound verbs

Hyphenate compound verbs made up of an adjective plus a noun or a noun plus a verb.

Example

to cold-shoulder

to gift-wrap

Don’t hyphenate compound verbs made up of an adverb plus a verb. Write them as one word.

Example

to bypass

to overreact

to undergo

Compound adverbs

Write compound adverbs as one word.

Example

barefoot

downstream

overboard

Repeat words instead of using a hanging hyphen

Hanging (or floating) hyphens connect 2 words to a base word or a number that they share.

Example

3- or 4-part harmony

pre- or post-1945

full- and part-time positions

This can be difficult to follow, so it's clearer to repeat the words.

Example

full-time and part-time positions

Don’t hyphenate ‘-ing’ and ‘-ed’ verbs or most ‘-ly’ adverbs

Don’t use a hyphen in most compounds consisting of an adverb ending in ‘-ly’ and a participle (a part of a verb ending in ‘-ing’ or ‘-ed’).

Correct

a fully loaded truck

his rapidly declining health

a partly read book

Incorrect

a fully-loaded truck

his rapidly-declining health

a partly-read book

The only exceptions are 2 formations using the adverb ‘fully’:

  • ‘fully-fashioned’
  • ‘fully-fledged’.

Release notes

The digital edition consolidates information in the Content Guide and the sixth edition. It provides examples of correct and incorrect use.

The sixth edition had information about hyphens, concentrated in the ‘spelling and word punctuation’ section.

The Content Guide had brief information about hyphens, including in relation to spelling for particular terms.

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References

American Psychological Association (2020) ‘Mechanics of style’, Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edn, American Psychological Association, Washington DC.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: editing and proofreading for the workplace, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

European Commission (2020) English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission, accessed 6 May 2020.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Oxford University Press (2016) ‘Punctuation’, New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

University of Chicago (2017) ‘Punctuation’, Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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