When and When Not to Hyphenate

what-color-is-the-dressYoo-hoo, Writer Peeps!

Do you know why high-heeled shoes get a hyphen, but running shoes do not? Why the president-elect gets a hyphen, but the vice president elect does not? What if I told you that the white-and-gold dress was also blue and black? Some people think hyphenating is random, that whatever looks right is right. Sorry, but no. We have rules. We can’t just let people hyphenate all over the place, willy-nilly. But I’ve got your back. I’ll walk you through this.

The following guidelines are just a tip of the iceberg of hyphenation, but it’s a place to start. They’re in accordance with the current (16th) edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. CMOS is the most commonly used American English style guide for fiction, and for social sciences and historical nonfiction. Now let’s get started.


  • To separate groups of numerals for easier reading and remembering.
    • My phone number is 813-555-7575.
  • To express age. Whether adjective or noun, numeral or written, use a hyphen.
    • The seven-year-old child jumped rope.
    • The 65-year-old asked for the senior discount.
  • For compound color names–only if the color is before the noun it describes.
    • He recreated the reddish-orange sunset on canvas.
    • Grandma showed us a black-and-white photo.
      • Exception: Do not hyphenate compound color names if the color comes after the noun it describes.
        • Though ripe, the mango remained yellowish green.
        • This old photo is black and white.
  • For numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine, when spelled out.
    • I counted up to thirty-four in attendance.
  • For a number that comes before a noun, whether spelled out or a numeral.
    • Our five-year mission is to seek out new life and new civilizations.
    • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an 870-page novel.
  • For in-laws. All forms are hyphenated.
    • Her new mother-in-law, brothers-in-law, and sisters-in-law welcomed her to the family.
  • Adjectives before a noun.
    • She’s a small-town girl at heart. (But: She lives in a small town.)
  • Gerund combinations used as adjectives.
    • Mark is a law-abiding citizen.
    • Ginny is a mud-slinging politician.


  • To break long words at the end of a line. It used to be standard practice to break a long word that falls at the end of a line with a hyphen, and continue it on the next line. This is no longer correct. Let the edges look ragged. Only use hyphens where they grammatically make sense.
  • For time, whether written out or in numerals.
    • The bus should get here by four o’clock.
    • I need to go home by 6:30 p.m.
      • Exception: Hyphenate time when used as an adjective before a noun.
        • The seven-fifteen class ends at eight fifteen.
  • To express percentages. Percentages are not hyphenated, whether spelled out or numerals.
    • The store is having a 20 percent off sale.
    • I paid only eighty percent.
  • For directions. Make compound words for compound directions.
    • The wind came from the northeast.
    • The store is located on the southwest corner.
      • Exception: When three directions are combined, use a hyphen between the first two. The wind came from the east-northeast.
  • For compound chemical names. Chemical compounds are not hyphenated, whether used as adjectives or nouns.
    • He drank a sodium bicarbonate solution for his upset stomach.
    • Mom disinfected the thermometer with isopropyl alcohol.
  • For compound proper nouns related to geography or  identification.
    • It looks like trouble in the Middle East.
    • The iconic work of Japanese American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi is on display.
      • Exception: Hyphenate nouns related to geography or identification if the first part of the compound is an abbreviated prefix.
        • The focus group consisted of Cuban Americans, Anglo-Americans, and African Americans.
  • For adverbs ending in -ly, when coupled with a participle or adjective.
    • He wore a poorly made suit.
    • Did you think that joke was even slightly funny?
  • For gerunds that make up noun combinations.
    • I wear running shoes.
    • The children take swimming lessons.

As I said, these rules are just the tip of the iceberg. It would take many blogs to cover all of the hyphenation rules.  Your best bet is to get an up-to-date style guide, like CMOS. Remember words that are usually or always hyphenated will appear hyphenated in the dictionary, so look up words when you’re not sure. Merriam-Webster is the standard dictionary. And you can always ask me. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it for you.

Did you figure out why president-elect is hyphenated, but vice president elect is not? Because the word elect is always hyphenated as part of a compound–unless the office it modifies is an open compound (vice president, lieutenant governor, etc.).  Okay, that one counts as one of the random rules of American English. But it’s a fun one.

How many of these rules did you already know? Do you have a question about a specific hyphenation rule? Just ask. We’re all in this together.


2 Comments on “When and When Not to Hyphenate

  1. Is the wall behind Joe Biden that says Office of the President Elect, correct? Is it not hyphenated because of the open compound “Office”?

  2. Hi Vivi,
    Good catch! No, Biden’s sign was technically not correct. “President-elect” is not an open compound, even though it was written as one. The word “office” is not a part of the compound.
    You will see missing hyphens on office walls and doors often because short signs or notices usually ditch what is proper for what is more visually appealing. 🙂
    Thank you for your question. I’m sorry it took so long for me to see it. I took a long holiday break and missed the initial notification.


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