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.
- ‘a little used office’, but ‘a little
- ‘a unionised workforce’, but ‘an un
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.
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:
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.
-cover‘ [cover again], but ‘recover‘ [retrieve or regain]
-creation‘ [create anew], but ‘recreation‘ [leisure-related activity]
-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.
- an anti
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.
This practice is less important if a word is well known. Check a dictionary if you are unsure.
Hyphens link a prefix or suffix to a word to avoid a double letter or prevent a misunderstanding.
-item’, but ‘multilateral’
-sign’ [sign again], but ‘resign’ [leave a job]
Hyphens link a prefix to a word that starts with a capital letter.
Don’t use hyphens if the 2 words end and start with different vowels. The combined word doesn’t place the same vowel together.
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.
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.
Two-syllable prefixes ending in ‘o’ are often attached without a hyphen, regardless of what the base word starts with.
- macroeconomics, macrobiotic
- monoamine, monocultural
- radioactive, radiotherapy
- retroactive, retrograde
Two-syllable prefixes ending in a consonant are rarely followed by a hyphen.
- 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.
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.
- the PNG Government’s anti
Write most suffixes without hyphens
Suffixes are normally attached directly to the base word without any hyphen. The commonest suffixes include:
A hyphen precedes ‘-fold’ when that suffix is used with a numeral, but not a spelled out number.
Always use a hyphen with the suffix ‘-odd’, whether it’s with a word or numeral.
There were 150
Hyphenate some but not all compound words
A compound word consists of 2 or more words that carry a new meaning when used together.
- ‘the up
-date accounts’, but ‘the accounts are up to date’
-business owners’, but ‘owners of small businesses’
- ‘an 11
-old child, but ‘a child who is 11 years old’
Don’t confuse hyphens with dashes.
Compound nouns make up the largest group of compound words. They can be made up of:
- a verb and an 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.
- a shake
- some make
- the go
-ahead for the project
For adverb–verb combinations, you don’t need a hyphen.
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.
|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’.|
Use of hyphens in noun-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.
Adjective plus noun combination
Compound nouns consisting of an adjective followed by a noun are usually written as 2 words.
- red tape
- free will
Compound adjectives need hyphens if they are made up of either:
- 2 adjectives
- a noun and an adjective.
-hot [Two adjectives]
-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.
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.
- 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’.
- 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.
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.]
Compound adjectives that are set phrases consisting of a noun plus a noun or an adjective plus a noun are not usually hyphenated.
- a tax office ruling
- the stock exchange report
- an equal opportunity employer
If the phrase is further modified, use a hyphen to prevent ambiguity.
- a retrospective
- the Tokyo
- a renowned
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.
Hyphenate compound adjectives consisting of a participle or an adjective.
Don’t hyphenate a compound adjective made up of an adverb–verb combination if the adverb ends in ‘-ly’.
- an elegantly executed manoeuvre
- a finely honed argument
Numbers and fractions
If you need to write out numbers as words rather than numerals, use hyphens to link numbers from 21 to 99.
- two hundred and thirty
Hyphens link parts of a fraction.
-half’, but ‘a half’
-quarter’, but ‘a quarter’
Capitals, italics and question marks
Compound adjectives containing capital letters, italics or quotation marks are not usually hyphenated.
- a High Court decision
- an in situ inspection
- a ‘do or die’ attitude
Hyphenate compound verbs made up of an adjective plus a noun or a noun plus a verb.
Don’t hyphenate compound verbs made up of an adverb plus a verb. Write them as one word.
- to bypass
- to overreact
- to undergo
Write compound adverbs as one word.
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.
This can be difficult to follow, so it's clearer to repeat the words.
Don’t hyphenate ‘-ing’ and ‘-ed’ verbs or most ‘-ly’ adverbs
- a fully loaded truck
- his rapidly declining health
- a partly read book
- a fully
- his rapidly
- a partly
The only exceptions are 2 formations using the adverb ‘fully’:
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.
About this page
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