Punctuation marks

apostrophe ( ' ) ( )
brackets ( ( ) ) ( [ ] ) ( { } ) ( Template:Unicode )
colon ( : )
comma ( , )
dashes ( Template:Unicode ) ( ) ( ) ( )
ellipsis ( ) ( ... )
exclamation mark ( ! )
full stop/period ( . )
hyphen ( - ) ( Template:Unicode )
interrobang ( Template:Unicode )
question mark ( ? )
quotation marks ( ‘ ’ ) ( “ ” )
semicolon ( ; )
slash/solidus ( / )
space (   ) and interpunct ( )

Other typographer's marks

ampersand ( & )
asterisk ( * ) and asterism ( Template:Unicode )
at ( @ )
backslash ( \ )
bullet ( , more )
dagger ( † ‡ )
degrees ( ° )
number sign ( # )
prime ( )
tilde ( ~ )
underscore ( _ )
vertical bar/pipe ( | )

A hyphen ( - ) is a punctuation mark. It is used both to join words and to separate syllables. It is often confused with a dash ( , , ), which is longer. Hyphenation is the use of hyphens.


Rules and customs of usage

Traditionally, the hyphen has been used in several ways:

  • Nouns formed of two nouns, or a noun and an adjective, are sometimes hyphenated, as blue-blood. (See also Hyphenated American.)
  • Except for noun-noun and adverb-adjective compound modifiers, when a compound modifier appears before a term, the compound modifier is generally hyphenated in order to prevent any possible misunderstanding, such as light-blue paint, twentieth-century invention, cold-hearted person, and award-winning show. Without the hyphens, there is potential confusion about whether 'light' applies to 'blue' or 'paint', whether 'twentieth' applies to 'century' or 'invention', etc. Hyphens are generally not used in noun-noun or adverb-adjective compound modifiers, because no such confusion is possible; for example:
    • government standards organization and department store manager
    • wholly owned subsidiary and quickly moving vehicle
  • Hyphenation is also common with adjective-noun compound modifiers, but arguably less generally. For example, real-world example; left-hand drive. Where the adjective-noun phrase would be plural standing alone, it usually becomes singular and hyphenated when modifying another noun. For example, four days becomes four-day week.
  • Names of numbers less than one hundred are hyphenated. For instance, the number 123 should be written one hundred [and] twenty-three. (The and is generally included in British English but often omitted in American English.)
  • Hyphens are also used to denote syllabification, as in syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion. In many dictionaries, a middle dot sometimes called a "hyphenation point" is used for this purpose, as in syl·la·bi·fi·ca·tion.
  • If a word beginning on one line of text continues into the following line, a hyphen will usually be inserted immediately before the split. Note that the details of doing this properly are complex and language-dependent, and interact with other typesetting practices: see justification and hyphenation algorithm.
  • Some married couples compose a new surname for their new family by combining their two surnames together with a hyphen in between. Jane Doe and John Smith might become Jane and John Smith-Doe, for instance. More often, however, only the woman hyphenates her birth surname with her husband's surname.

However, the use of hyphens has in general been steadily declining, both in popular writing and in scholarly journals. Its use is almost always avoided by those who write advertising copy or labels on packaging, since they are often more concerned with visual cleanliness than semantic clarity. However, it is still used in most newspapers and magazines, so people remain accustomed to seeing and understanding it. Most writers who are obstreperous about other things are compliant when editors tell them to hyphenate compounds.

Examples of usage

Some strong examples of semantic changes caused by the placement of hyphens:

  • Disease causing poor nutrition, meaning a disease that causes poor nutrition, and
  • Disease-causing poor nutrition, meaning poor nutrition that causes disease
  • A man-eating shark is a carnivorous fish, while
  • a man eating shark is a carnivorous male human.
  • New age-discrimination rules, meaning new rules regarding discrimination according to age, and
  • New-age discrimination rules, meaning rules regarding discrimination (not necessarily according to age) consistent with the New Age movement

Additional examples of proper use:

text-only document or ... document is text-only
Detroit-based organization or ... organization is Detroit-based
state-of-the-art product or ... product is state-of-the-art (but The state of the art is very advanced. with no hyphen)
board-certified strategy or ... strategy is board-certified
thought-provoking argument or ... argument is thought-provoking
time-sensitive error or ... error is time-sensitive
case-sensitive password or ... password is case-sensitive
government-issued photo ID or ... photo ID is government-issued (but ... is issued by the government with no hyphen.)
light-gathering surface or ... surface is light-gathering
award-winning novel or ... novel is award-winning (but, more likely, ... won an award with no hyphen)
web-based encyclopedia or ... encyclopedia is web-based
fun-loving person or ... person is fun-loving
how to wire-transfer funds
how to tax-plan
advertising-supported service or ... service is advertising-supported (but, better, ... is supported by advertising with no hyphen.)
Rudolph Giuliani is an Italian-American (but see Hyphenated American)
list of China-related topics or ...list of topics is China-related (but ... related to China with no hyphen)
Out-of-body experience
Near-death experience

Origin and history of the hyphen

In medieval times and the early days of printing, when fonts all resembled Old English, the predecessor of the comma was a slash. As the hyphen ought not to be confused with this, a double-slash was used, this resembling an equals sign tilted like a slash. Writing forms changed with time, and included the full development of the comma, so the hyphen could become one horizontal stroke.

However, publishers of dictionaries liked that a tilted symbol would give them a little extra room in their books. Those dictionaries based on the second edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary used one small, slightly tilted slash for a hyphen which they added at the end of a line where they broke the word, but used a double-slash very like the very old symbol to indicate a hyphen which must needs be in a phrase which just happened to get at the end of the line. This double-slash would be used in hyphenated phrases in the middle of the text as well, so there would be no confusion.

Hyphens in computing

In the ASCII character encoding, the hyphen was encoded as character 45. Technically, this character is called the hyphen-minus, as it is also used as the minus sign and dashes. In Unicode, this same character is encoded as Template:Uplusfirst002D so that Unicode remains compatible with ASCII. However, Unicode also encodes the hyphen and minus separately, as U+2010 ( ‐ ) and U+2212 ( − ), respectively.

When flowing text, it is sometimes preferable to break a word in half so that it continues on another line rather than moving the entire word to the next line. However, the number of characters on a line often depends on user settings. Therefore Unicode encodes a soft hyphen character, U+00AD: when flowing text, a system may consider the soft hyphen to be a point at which a word may be broken, and display a hyphen at the end of the broken line; otherwise, the hyphen is not displayed. In HTML, the soft hyphen is encoded as the character entity "­". Breaking words requires some knowledge of the conventions of language, making the writing of a computer program capable of doing so automatically and accurately difficult.

Most text systems consider a hyphen to be a word boundary and a valid point at which to break a line when flowing text. However, this is not always desirable behavior, especially when it could lead to ambiguity. For this purpose, Unicode also encodes a non-breaking hyphen as U+2011. This character looks identical to the regular hyphen, but is not treated as a word boundary.

The ASCII hyphen character is also often used when specifying parameters to programs in a command line interface. The hyphen is usually followed by one or more letters that indicate specific actions. Typically it is called a dash in this context. This is used in many different operating systems, including DOS and Microsoft Windows, although the use of a slash (/) is more prevalent there. A parameter by itself that is only a single hyphen without any letters usually means that a program is supposed to handle data coming from the standard input or send data to the standard output. Two hyphens (--) are used on some programs to specify "long options" where more descriptive action names are used. That is a common feature of GNU software.

International Standard dates

The continental Europeans have used the hyphen instead of the slash in their system of writing the date. The Germans and Slavs even used roman numerals: 14-vii-1789, for example, is their former way of writing the first Bastille Day. Plaques on the wall of the Moscow Kremlin are written this way. Such a system differs from the way that English-speaking peoples use the slash in prose, and has won out in international standards.

The International Standard ISO 8601, which was accepted by both the Germans as DIN 5008 and by the Europeans as European Standard EN 28601 brought about a new standard using the hyphen. Now all official European governmental documents use this. These norms prescribe writing dates using hyphens: 1789-07-14 is the new way of writing the first Bastille Day. A form without the year is 07-14.

This new method has even gained influence in America. Because the system of computer files uses the slash, dates cannot be written in the old way in computer files and still make sense, nor can they be compared to those from Europe and in other places around the world. Many computer systems have switched to this method, even though it is quite contrary to the system based on the slash. The government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, has switched to this method, although it has not yet been imposed upon society at large.


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