You've seen it, that little line in between two words, like “low-key” or “step-mother.” Maybe you've spotted it at the end of a line in a book, splitting up another word. What does – mean in writing anyway?

Well, first of all, you should know that it's called a hyphen, and let me tell you, it's one useful little piece of punctuation. 

In this article, we're going to look at how the – works in your writing, from the uses of hyphens to the differences between hyphens and our other favorite dashes. Finally, we'll show you our favorite, top 100 words with hyphens. Ready to get started?

Types of Dashes in Writing: What Makes the – Special

It wasn't until after I became a professional writer that I learned there are not one, not two, but three types of dashes used in writing. Here's a quick definition of each type of dash, plus how to create one.

Hyphen Definition

A hyphen is a short horizontal line (-) used in writing to connect words, prefixes, or syllables, usually for the sake of clarity or to create compound words.

To create a hyphen: just press the standard dash on your keyboard. Easy!

En Dash Definition

An en dash (–) is a punctuation mark that's longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It's used primarily to indicate ranges of numbers, like “pages 10–20,” or to link related items, like “the New York–London flight.” It's also sometimes used to replace “to” or “and” between words.

Here's how to create an en dash:

  • On a Mac, press Option + Hyphen (Option + -)
  • On a PC, hold down the Alt key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad (make sure Num Lock is on)
  • On iOS, hold down the hyphen key, and the en dash will pop up as an option
  • (Or just copy and paste it!)

Em Dash Definition (My favorite kind of dash!)

An em dash (—) is a longer dash used to set off a word or clause and can replace commas, semicolons, or colons for emphasis. It's often used to show a break in a sentence or an interruption.

Here's how to create an em dash:

  • On a Mac, press Shift + Option + Hyphen (Shift + Option + -)
  • On a PC, press Alt + 0151 (make sure Num Lock is on and use the numeric keypad)
  • On iOS, hold down the hyphen key, and the em dash will pop up as an option
  • (Or, again, just copy and paste it!)

There, that wasn't so hard, right? Now that you know about all the different kinds of dashes, let's talk more about how the hyphen is used in writing.

7 Uses of Hyphens

Hyphens have a lot of uses in writing. Let's go over each with examples:

1. Hyphens Connect Compound Numbers.

The most common mistake with hyphen use that I've encountered happens when talking about ages.

Example: Francie is twenty-six years old. She is a twenty-six-year-old woman.

Congratulations, you no longer have any excuse to make that mistake again. Exceptions start when you get into the larger numbers.

Example: Jim's house is one hundred years old. Jim has a one hundred-year-old house.

The one and hundred are never hyphenated.

2. Hyphens Connect Compound Adjectives

As a writer, sometimes you need to describe a character or a scenario, but the words at your disposal just aren't enough. Maybe your protagonist goes through an awkward moment, but the word awkward by itself doesn't fully reflect the depth of the discomfort your characters are feeling. You're feeling ballsy now that you've mastered the semicolon, and you decide that you're going to create your own adjective.

No, I am not suggesting that you try to create your own words. You're not Shakespeare  What I am suggesting is that you make use of the em dash‘s more common cousin, the hyphen.

Hyphens are great for situations where you need to enhance adjectives. For example, look at the difference between these two sentences.

“Oh, she's your wife,” Sheila said as the awkwardness in the room approached its peak.

“Oh, she's your wife,” Sheila said as the awkwardness in the room reached near-Himalayan heights.

In the first sentence, we know that the situation is uncomfortable. 

In the second sentence above, near-Himalayan has to be hyphenated.

Here's why: if you don't hyphenate those adjectives, then all of the adjectives are modifying the noun. So if you didn't hyphenate above, then you would have awkwardness that reaches “near heights” and “Himalayan heights.” That doesn't really make sense.

The hyphen tells the reader that the near is modifying the partner adjective Himalayan, and not the heights.

3. Hyphens Connect Compound Words

Hyphens can join two or more separate words into one compound word.

For example, it's not “mother in law.” It's “mother-in-law.”

Same with “state-of-the-art,” one of my favorite four-word compound words. Great right?

4. After Some Prefixes

Prefixes, like “pre-” and “un-” and “anti-“, are added to the beginning of words to alter their meanings, and in some cases they use hyphens to add clarity.

A good example is “re-sign,” which means to sign again, and “resign,” which means “to quit.” 

Most prefixes in English don't require hyphens because they've been used for decades or even centuries and gradually people stopped adding the hyphens. But there are some words with prefixes that still require hyphens, usually for one of the following reasons:

  1. If they're confusing because either they're confusing, repeat 
  2. If they repeat a letter
  3. If they're unfamiliar
  4. Just because

Yes, sometimes we have to use hyphens for no obvious reason. The English language is weird. Sorry about that!

5. To Hyphenate a Name

Some spouses choose to hyphenate their last names when they get married, like Gordon-Levitt or Newton-John. It's one way people choose to show that they've created a new family. 

Other people have hyphenated first names, like Jean-Paul Sartre or Carrie-Anne Moss or even Mary-Kate Olsen.

6. To Break Words at the End of Lines

If you run out of space at the end of a line, you can use a hyphen to break a word and continue it on the next line. 

Today, this is usually done automatically when you use the “hyphenation” formatting option, and it's especially done on text that has been justified, like in books. This helps keep the spacing even.

7. Words with Single Letters

Finally, when you have words that spell out individual letters, like “X-ray” or “C-section,” you usually use a hyphen.

100 Words With Hyphens: Hyphen Examples

Now, what are some examples of hyphenated words, so you can see them in action. Let's look at our all-time, desert-island, top 100 words with hyphens:

  1. Brand-new
  2. Mother-in-law
  3. Well-known
  4. Up-to-date
  5. Self-esteem
  6. High-quality
  7. State-of-the-art
  8. Father-in-law
  9. Eye-catching
  10. In-depth
  11. Top-notch
  12. Long-term
  13. Short-term
  14. Second-hand
  15. Part-time
  16. Full-time
  17. Co-worker
  18. Old-fashioned
  19. One-third
  20. Twenty-one
  21. Hand-me-down
  22. Editor-in-chief
  23. Vice-president
  24. Low-key
  25. All-inclusive
  26. Run-of-the-mill
  27. User-friendly
  28. Down-to-earth
  29. Cold-blooded
  30. Run-down
  31. Built-in
  32. Self-defense
  33. Mass-produced
  34. Half-baked
  35. Time-consuming
  36. All-around
  37. Far-reaching
  38. Close-knit
  39. Last-minute
  40. Light-headed
  41. In-laws
  42. Self-control
  43. Matter-of-fact
  44. Well-off
  45. Get-together
  46. High-end
  47. Free-for-all
  48. High-tech
  49. Non-profit
  50. Brother-in-law
  51. Self-aware
  52. Well-being
  53. Short-lived
  54. Deep-rooted
  55. Middle-class
  56. Self-help
  57. Out-of-date
  58. Sister-in-law
  59. Tug-of-war
  60. One-sided
  61. On-going
  62. Double-check
  63. Time-sensitive
  64. Fast-paced
  65. Quick-witted
  66. Mouth-watering
  67. Year-round
  68. Wide-ranging
  69. Two-thirds
  70. Right-hand
  71. Tight-knit
  72. Cut-and-dry
  73. World-class
  74. One-time
  75. Ever-changing
  76. Six-pack
  77. Check-in
  78. Long-lasting
  79. Old-timer
  80. Good-looking
  81. Life-changing
  82. Hard-to-find
  83. Out-of-the-way
  84. Take-out
  85. Warm-hearted
  86. Top-of-the-line
  87. Open-minded
  88. Four-wheel-drive
  89. Ground-breaking
  90. Self-contained
  91. Far-fetched
  92. Step-by-step
  93. Well-to-do
  94. Ill-advised
  95. Hard-working
  96. Second-rate
  97. Loud-mouthed
  98. Tight-fisted
  99. Well-read
  100. Over-the-top

What's your favorite hyphenated word? Let us know in the comments!


Let's put what we've learned about hyphens to practice!

Write about Mary-Ann, a travel blogger who's obsessed with finding the world's most beautiful sunsets, and Tim Johnson-Smith, an astrophysicist who's more interested in the stars that come out after the sun goes down. They cross paths at a quaint bed-and-breakfast in Sunset-Valley, a small town much-celebrated for its awe-inspiring dusk views. Is this their meet-cute or do they self-combust before they ever have a chance to become star-crossed lovers?

Write a story that unfolds over a twenty-four hours, using as many hyphens as you can. The more the better!

Then, for feedback, post your practice or ideas in the Pro Practice Workshop here!

Happy writing!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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