English Grammar: How To Use Hyphens in English?

Hyphen is basically a punctuation mark used to join the two independent words to make it one. These are really important to be careful about in IELTS writing, reading, and listening exams. Hyphens are basically a small dash that joins and makes the word one. The use of hyphens is called hyphenation or hyphenate.

It appears to be a very unimportant area to be focused upon but makes a major change to your writing of task 1 and task 2. It also plays an important role in filling up the boxes of IELTS listening and IELTS reading answer sheets.

In this particular blog, you will get to know about the detailed usage of hyphens (where or where not). Also, its importance in the IELTS exam will be discussed.

👉 Exceptions- Don't Use Hyphen Here

➡️ Don't Use Hyphens with Compound Words

 Hyphens are not used where there is no confusion of the words, because the words are often seen together casually. These words, however, are written independently but without a hyphen.

For example- High school musical, living room, estate agent, post office etc. These are known as open compound words.

➡️ Don't Use it with Familiar Words

 Hyphens are not used if the words have become familiar after so much use. These words are written together ofcourse, without a hyphen in between.

For example- e-mail/email, on-line/online or words like notebook and postman etc. These are known as closed compound words.

➡️ Don't Use with Compound Adjectives

Hyphens are also not used where compound adjectives come after the noun.

The use of the hyphen in English compound nouns and verbs has, in general, been steadily declining. Compounds that might once have been hyphenated are increasingly left with spaces or are combined into one word

For example-

➔ He is a well-known actor. Or This actor is very well known.

➔ This story is badly written. Or this is a badly-written story.

Some of the compound adjectives are

A 40-minute walk, a five-star hotel, a 10-foot fence, a well-written novel, a north-eastern state etcetera.

Also Read- English Grammar-The 8 Parts of Speech Rules & Examples

➡️ Don't Use with Adverbs ending in -ly

Hyphens are also not used for adverbs ending in -ly

For example-

➔ a badly drawn diagram.

➔ A highly prestigious award.

➔ A casually dressed boy.

➔ A Beautifully painted picture.

👉 Hyphens with Prefixes

● Words with prefixes almost need a hyphen to make them clearer because of their spellings.

➔ There is an organisation in the USA called ‘The Co-op’ (short form of ‘co-operative’). Without the hyphen, it would be ‘The Coop’ (where chickens sleep).

● However, in words like ‘co-worker’ hyphen is removed and is written as co-worker as they become more commonly used. Another example can be roommate or roommate or room-mate. In all of the three ways, it is correct as the word is much familiar now.

● Words like ‘re-enter’ ‘re-do’ need a hyphen so that the hyphen makes them clearer. Prefixes (such as de-, pre-, re-, and non-) and suffixes (such as -less, -like, -ness, and -hood) are sometimes hyphenated, especially when the unhyphenated spelling resembles another word or when the affixation is deemed misinterpreted and ambiguous. There is a difference in meaning for example between

➔ ‘recover’ means to get better and ‘re-cover’ means to cover again.

➔ ‘repress’ means to keep under control and ‘re-press’ means press again.

➔ 'resent’ means to feel bitter or angry and ‘re-sent’ means to send again.

● Prefixes like self or ex are also used with hyphens. For example: - self-confidence, ex-wife, self-respect etc.

● Before proper nouns/adjectives (with Capital Letters), hyphens are used with prefixes. For example: - mid-January, pre-Covid, post-Covid etc.

👉 Numbers with Hyphens

It is difficult to write some numbers without hyphens. This is useful to be known for Academic Writing Task 1 (describing charts or illustrations).

➡️ Paraphrasing time periods

‘The bar graph shows changes over 20 years ‘. Or

‘The bar graph shows changes over a 20-year period.’

When you turn the number of years (plural) into an adjective, a hyphen is added and an ‘s’ is removed.

Some more Examples are:

● This house has 3 bedrooms./ This is a 3-bedroom house.

● The boy was 10 years old./ He was a 10-year-old boy.

● My flight was of 6 hours./ It was a 6-hour flight.

➡️ Compound numbers from 21 to 99

● Thirty-one people died in this pandemic over a period of a day.

● It’s fifty-five percent accurate.

● The cut-off marks to get admission in higher classes after senior secondary is ninety-nine percent.

➡️ Fractions (without a/an)

● More than three-fourths of the population voted.

● A third of the population voted. (Without any hyphen as there is no compound word)

● More than one-third of the population was affected by the symptoms of corona pandemic.

➡️ Before dates

● The inflation was likely to be less pre-1990.

● He’s in her mid-20s.

● Fuel prices are likely to rise post-war.

👉 Hyphens vs Dashes

Now the question is if we see the sign of a hyphen, it looks like a dash. Both are similar in appearance as horizontal lines in between the words. So What’s the difference between usage of a hyphen(-) and a dash(—)?

Well, the answer is Hyphens JOIN the two or more words together, whereas dashes SEPARATES them.

A dash (—) has a different purpose. There are 2 types of dashes that are used as punctuation marks.

➡️ en-dash

Use this to show a range or it is used in place of 'to' or 'and'.

● e.g. people aged 25-35. It can be read as 25 to 35.

● Rainy season comes from July - September. It can be read as July to September.

● Boston–Hartford route

● Mother - daughter relationship.

➡️ em-dash (—)

The em-dash separates information, like brackets. Em dashes are used to replace punctuation marks such as commas, colons/semi-colons, and brackets. There is always a space before and after the em-dash. It is not recommended to use dashes in formal or academic writing as it is considered as too informal.

For example:-

● Milk chocolate contains twice as much fat as dark chocolate – 32% and 16% respectively.

● Three colours of the Indian flag: saffron, white, green


Three colours of the Indian flag — saffron, white, green.

👉 Hyphens in IELTS Listening:-

Well, it has been pretty much clear about the hyphens in the writing test of IELTS. We have understood that hyphens are necessary to avoid confusion. If you put a hyphen in the Writing, you will not lose points. But now let's focus on some areas of the listening and reading section too.

In the listening test of IELTS, the gap-fill questions are required to be careful about. However, in the reading test of IELTS, a student is expected to write whatever is written in the passage. But, be careful of copying also as hyphenated words are one and take care of word limit in gap-fill exercises.


If there is a 2 word limit, and the answer is and you write ‘eye sight’ or ‘eye-sight’ or ‘eyesight’, they would all be accepted and you will Not lose points, because you have understood the Listening correctly.

Although technically ‘eye sight’ should be ONE WORD according to the reference books but this is Not what is being tested in the Listening section.

Remember: the IELTS Listening test is a test of Listening, not punctuation.

The reason that spelling is important is that it is the only way of checking you have correctly understood the Listening text.

👉 Purpose Of Hyphens In IELTS Writing

The main purpose of hyphens is to join words or parts of words together, usually to make the sentence clearer and to avoid ambiguity. Let's have a look at the sentences below.

● She is a small home baker.

● She is a small-home baker.

● She is a small home-baker.

Sentence 1 is confusing as it needs a hyphen somewhere to make it clearer.

Sentence 2 means that she is a baker in a small home.

Sentence 3 means that she is a home-baker at a small level.

Hope that you get the idea of how a hyphen makes a difference to the meaning of the sentences. There are many examples like this, where the hyphen makes things clearer

For example—

● a short story-writer/ a short-story writer

● 24-hour shifts, twenty-four-hour shifts

● an ancient-history teacher/ an ancient history-teacher

● a little used-vehicle/a little-used vehicle etc.

👉 Interesting Facts About Hyphens

● The word ‘hyphen’ comes from the Greek word which means ‘together’.

● Winston Churchill (UK Prime Minister) apparently said hyphens are ‘a blemish to be avoided wherever possible'.

● Woodrow Wilson (US Prime Minister) said the hyphen was ‘the most un-American thing in the world’ (whatever that means)

● Hyphenated surnames are considered to be ‘posh-sounding’ (‘posh sounding? No hyphen?) and often the subject of mocking. In Wales, where I’m from, hyphenated surnames are quite common (my maiden name was Harrison-Rees. It sounds much posher than ‘Wattam’).

Hyphens appear to be a very ignored area to be focused upon, but a little mistake in a hyphen will make you feel like, oh! Due to this small mistake, I lost my marks. However, no proper grammar rules in the English language are there for hyphenation. Hope that you understand all the aforementioned areas where hyphens play an important role. Keep these rules in mind and keep practicing.

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