Hyphenation tips and guidelines

The rules for hyphenation are complex, and there are many exceptions to the rules. A few key tips will help you:

Use hyphens to avoid ambiguity

The main reason to use a hyphen is to ensure that your meaning is clear. Your guide to deciding whether to use a hyphen should be whether the phrase or word is clear without it:

Hot water bottle [could mean a water bottle that happens to be hot]

Hot-water bottle [means a specific item – a bottle for hot water]

Most successful students [could mean the majority of the students who have done well]

Most-successful students [means the students who performed the best]

Reading the sentence aloud can help you to decide – if you naturally tend to run 2 of the words together to make the meaning clear, you might need a hyphen (or the word might be set solid to form a new combined word).

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Be consistent in use of hyphens

Whatever decisions you make about hyphens, make sure you record them in a stylesheet. This will help you to be consistent throughout your text, and will also help you to develop general rules to guide the decisions you make about new words and phrases.

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Determine what type of word you are dealing with

Asking these questions and following the advice will answer most of your hyphenation questions. However, not every compound will follow these guidelines, so take a look at the relevant sections to explore further.

Are you dealing with:

  • a prefix? Usually set solid, unless the word would be ambiguous or look wrong (see Prefixes)

multiverse     undertaker     re-leased [leased again, vs set free]     anti-inflammatory [not antiinflammatory]

fearless     grateful     kindness     ownership   
Do the system back-up.     I will back up my work.
a government-owned building     the building is government owned
  • a common word or phrase? Do not use a hyphen; set solid or leave open. Compounds that are well established are more likely to have lost the hyphen, especially noun and verb compounds (see Compound nouns and Compound verbs)

website     downfall     equal opportunity     primary school [nouns]

babysit     daydreamed     downplay [verbs]

Did you know? New words are often created by compounding (where 2 or more words are brought together to form a single word). The usual path for a new word is for 2 words (eg to and day) to become hyphenated (to-day) and then for the hyphen to be dropped (today).

Many of the single words we know today started life as 2 or more words. But the longer form now looks strange. For example:

  • any thing
  • clock work
  • every one
  • for ever
  • good bye
  • in stead
  • none the less
  • note book
  • some body
  • teen age
  • to morrow
  • waist coat
  • what so ever.
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Use a dictionary or other reference

If in doubt, check a dictionary or other reference work relevant to your particular topic. Dictionaries are particularly useful to see whether a word has become common enough to be set solid.

Caution! Entries in some dictionaries are based on use in the community. This means that compound words that look similar may be set inconsistently (eg in the Macquarie dictionary, policymaker is one word, and decision-maker is hyphenated). If you have words like these in your text, you will need to decide whether to follow the dictionary or to present them in the same way (eg both solid or both open; either is acceptable) so the text is consistent.
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