Home » Uncategorized » To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate – The Eternal Dilemma

To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate – The Eternal Dilemma

It’s the one thing I can safely say every writer I’ve ever known has trouble with, except those with photographic memories, of course.

Should a particular word be hyphenated, or is it one word, or even two words?

The answer isn’t always simple and sometimes it depends on the role of the word in the sentence. Is it acting as a modifier before the noun? If so, it will usually be hyphenated. But if the modifying expression comes after, protocol dictates they should be separate words:

an up-to-date dictionary


the calendar is up to date

Throw into the mix the fact that various leading dictionaries offer different spellings and it’s easy to understand why hyphenation is such a minefield for many writers.

Here are a couple of other instances where hyphens should be used

  • Numbers – eighty-three, seventy-four, twenty-seven
  • Points on a compass (although US usage differs somewhat) – north-west

And don’t confuse a hyphen and a dash – they are quite distinct and have different jobs to do.

Now for a little quiz! Ask yourself if these words are hyphenated, not, or potentially both.



cul de sac

four poster

ill at ease

nerve racking

low cost

boarded up

half cut

sixth form

well to do

well known

And to round off, horse-fly, horsefly or horse fly? I’ve added this simply as my Other Half has just taken a photo of one in the garden!

From a proofreader or editor’s point of view, unless it’s wrong or inconsistent, we won’t necessarily change it. In my own writing I still tend to hyphenate most words I’ve been brought up to recognise as requiring a hyphen, yet I know this practice is changing. English is evolving, or becoming more lax depending on how you prefer to look at it.

The most important thing of all is to be consistent!  Readers WILL notice if coal miner becomes coalminer halfway through, or indeed half way through! (for the record it’s coal miner and halfway).

So what are your thoughts on hyphens? Do they cause YOU headaches?





  1. Sarah Brentyn says:

    I think consistency in your writing is a major point. But, yes, headache for me on this one. When I look words up, I often see “alternate spelling” or the word hyphenated depending on usage. Half hour. A half-hour lecture.

    • I agree and I can see why people get confused with the example you gave. One easy way to remember it is, although there are always exceptions, if it’s an adjective preceding a noun, e.g. ‘an up-to-date manual’, it’s hyphenated, but if you want to say ‘social networking keeps you up to date’ no hyphen. Hope that helps!

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