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Hyphens in Compound Words


What is a hyphen?

A hyphen is a short dash which is used to link words together. There are three main situations in which hyphens are used: in compound words, when adding a prefix to another word, and to denote word breaks. This week, we will look at how to use hyphens in compound words.

What is a compound word?

A compound word is a word that is made up of two or more other words. Hyphens are often used in compound words either to show that when the included words are together they have a combined meaning, or to show the relationship between the included words. There are different types of compound words and you don’t need to use hyphens in all of them.

Compound Adjectives

Hyphens are most commonly used in compound adjectives. These are words made up of a noun and an adjective, a noun and a participle, or an adjective and a participle. Click here to learn more about nouns and adjectives.

Here are some examples of compound adjectives:

  • good-looking
  • custom-built
  • sugar-free
  • bad-tempered

In these examples, you can that the hyphen helps makes the meaning of the words clear. It shows us that we need to read both words together and look for their combined meaning.

If compound adjectives are made from either a phrase or using the adverb ‘well’, a hyphen is needed only if the adjective comes before the noun.

For example:

  • He was a well-liked member of the class.
  • The boy was well liked.
  • She participated in on-the-job training.
  • It was her first day of training on the job.

Hyphens are especially important when the compound adjective includes numbers. Without the hyphen, the meaning might get confused.

For example:

  • ten-metre long ropes (this clearly describes ropes that are ten metres long).
  • ten metre long ropes (it is unclear whether this is describing many ropes that are ten metres long or ten ropes that are each one metre long).

Compound Verbs

The term compound verb describes two nouns joined together to make a verb. Click here to learn more about verbs.

Here are some examples of compound verbs:

  • giftwrap becomes to gift-wrap
  • ice skate becomes to ice-skate
  • cold shoulder becomes to cold-shoulder
  • spot check becomes to spot-check

Make sure you don’t confuse compound verbs with phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is made up of a verb and an adverb or a verb and a preposition and does not require a hyphen.

For example:

  • to give up
  • to break out
  • to drop off

Click here to learn more about adverbs and here to learn more about prepositions.

However – and here’s where it becomes complicated – if a phrasal verb is turned into a noun, a hyphen is necessary.

For example:

  • The coach made several other drop-offs before taking us to London.

Compound Nouns

A compound noun is a word made up of two separate nouns. While compound nouns do not require hyphens, some people prefer to use them. It is also acceptable (and preferred by most writers) to write compound nouns either as two separate words or joined up to make one word. The most important thing is to choose one style of writing a compound noun and to use this style consistently throughout a piece of work. Don’t, for example, interchange between fire-arm, firearm, and fire arm.


01 Oct 2017
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