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Introduction - When to Hyphenate

When two words are used together like a single adjective before a noun they are termed compound modifiers and should be separated by a hyphen. For example,

They usually looked for a child-friendly restaurant.

She was a well-known teacher.

18th-century artist

Five-year contract

When not to hyphenated

Be aware though that there is no need for a hyphen when the compound modifier comes after the noun. For example,

The restaurant was child friendly.

The teacher was well known.

The friends gathered for a house party which was the last time they ever got together.

The friends gathered for a house party; it was the last time they ever got together.

Conventionally, adverbs ending in -ly (e.g. highly regarded) are not hyphenated. Also, compound modifiers that have become words in their own right (e.g. semiconscious.) are not hyphenated.

A bit of a minefield

Knowing whether to use a hyphen is not always obvious. Some compound words are hyphenated (e.g. all-inclusive), some are separated by a space (e.g. school bus), and some joined together (e.g. midlife). There are some rules (with exceptions!) and guidelines, but sometimes a check for the word in a dictionary is required. A handy rule is that, if in doubt, leave it out!

Click here for a list of hyphenated words.

For clarity

A good question to ask when determining whether to use a hyphen is will there might be any confusion in meaning if the hyphen were not used. For example,

He came from a little known town.

He came from a little-known town.

The first example could mean the town was little and also well known. The second one is unambiguous and means the town was not well known.