How to Use and Interpret Hyphenation Conventions

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  • 0:01 Learning Mechanical Errors
  • 1:05 Why Are Hyphens Important?
  • 2:00 Hyphen Rules
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define hyphens, discuss the rules for using a hyphen correctly, and then explain why a hyphen is important for clarity in your writing.

Learning Mechanical Errors

Imagine the following scenario: you are in your English class and have been assigned a new paper to write. The topic is interesting and you are excited to get started on your essay. You spend hours working on your paper, researching for it, and drafting it. When you submit the final draft, you are confident that you will do well. A few weeks later, you receive your graded final draft and are shocked when you see the markings left by your teacher. While the content is strong, the mechanical errors have cost you the excellent grade that you expected.

We have all been there before! Writing can be frustrating and learning the mechanical errors can become overwhelming. However, if you look at the rules for punctuation, it becomes easier to learn how to use these punctuation marks in your own writing. One of these punctuation marks is a hyphen. By reviewing the rules of using the hyphen, you can become confident that you are using it correctly, and you will be able to avoid the frustration of the overly marked paper.

Why Are Hyphens Important?

What is a hyphen? A hyphen ( - ) lets your audience know that words are linked together in a sentence. When using a hyphen, there are some rules to remember. It is important to know the rules of using hyphens correctly because they can change the meaning of a sentence.

For example, let's say that you want a 'hot-water bottle.' With a hyphen, you are showing your audience that the two words are connected together. It is clear that you want a bottle of hot water. If you were to not use the hyphen, it would read 'hot water bottle.' In this example, it is unclear if you want a bottle of hot water or just a water bottle that is hot.

When writing, it is important that your audience understand your word choices and sentence structure. Mechanical errors can distract your audience and make the meaning unclear. A hyphen is one of the ways to be sure that your sentences have clear meaning and that your word choices are correct.

Hyphen Rules

1. A hyphen can be used to join two or more words when you are using them as a single adjective; this is called a compound adjective.

You would only do this if the adjective comes before the noun, not after it. For example, you would describe a candy as 'chocolate-covered cherries,' but you would not use a hyphen when saying the cherries are chocolate covered. Or, for another example, 'sugar-free soda,' but not when saying the soda is sugar free. In addition, you would not want to use a hyphen if one of the two words is an adverb that ends in 'ly.' For example, you would not want to use a hyphen with the phrase 'illegally issued license.' Notice this applies to adverbs and not nouns that end in 'ly,' like family, fly, or jelly.

2. A hyphen is used between compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

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