How to Use a Hyphen

Learn how to properly use hyphens with compound adjectives, and more.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #347

The other day on Twitter, I wrote that I was using my noise-canceling headphones because the wind was so loud.

In response, Jessica Saint Jean asked if a hyphen should go between “noise” and “canceling.”

A hyphen would be OK there, because “noise” and “canceling” are acting as a compound modifier, modifying “headphones.”

Notice how I said it would be OK, and I didn’t use any strong words like “must hyphenate” or “should hyphenate”? Although there are a few hard-and-fast rules for using hyphens, there are just too many exceptions to call everything relating to hyphens a rule.

What Is a Hyphen?

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Hyphens are a “look-it-up” punctuation mark. Though hyphens have several uses, we’re going to focus on how to use hyphens with compound adjectives. Compound adjectives are two or more words that together make an adjective. When they come directly before a noun, they’re known as compound modifiers and usually have a hyphen, like “noise-canceling headphones.” Here are a few more examples:

  • They had a long-term relationship.

  • The fire-proof vest proved to be a great life saver for Santa Claus.

 If the adjectives come after the noun, then they don’t need a hyphen. For example

  • Their relationship was long term.

  • Santa’s new vest is fire proof.


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