Mastering hyphenation rules

The rules for using hyphens can be confusing and frustrating, but once you remind yourself what the marks are really for, they may become a little more intuitive.

Hyphenation rules can be exceedingly complicated, complex, and crazy making. (For example, does “crazy making” need a hyphen?)

I recently spent 30 minutes explaining to a colleague why “follow up” is hyphenated in some instances, but not others.

In general, we use hyphens to avoid ambiguity. Otherwise, how would we be able to tell the difference between a “man-eating shark” and a “man eating shark”?

A definitive collection of hyphenation rules does not exist; rather, different style manuals prescribe different usage guidelines. In the style guide that I use most frequently—the “American Medical Association Manual of Style”—there are eight pages on the hyphen. These pages include rules for when to use hyphens and when not to use them.

Hyphens connect words, prefixes, and suffixes permanently or temporarily. When not otherwise specified, hyphens should be used only to avoid ambiguity. What follows is an abridged version of the hyphenation rules taken from the “AMA Manual of Style.” Other style guides will have different rules, but this is a place to start.

Hyphenate when the terms are used as an adjective before the noun.

• Did the creators of hyphenation rules use valid decision-making methods? (But: Their methods of decision making were questionable.)
• The student came for a follow-up visit to discuss his inability to hyphenate correctly. (But: Be sure to follow up with that style guide.)

Hyphenate two nouns of equal participation used as a single noun.

• She is a writer-editor.
• The student-teacher relationship became strained once the rules for hyphenation were introduced.

Use a hyphen as a prefix when the unhyphenated word would have a different meaning.

• re-treat
• re-creation
• re-formation
• re-sign

Did you mean to resign or re-sign?

Hyphens can also be used to avoid an awkward combination of letters.

• de-emphasize
• anti-inflammatory

The following common prefixes are not joined by hyphens:

• ante (antebellum)
• anti (antibiotic)
• bi (bivalve)
• co (coauthor)
• contra (contraindication)
• de (debrief)
• extra (extracurricular)
• infra (infrared)
• inter (interoperatively)
• intra (intravenous)
• micro (microsurgery)
• mid (midway)
• non (noncompliant)
• over (overtreatment)
• pre (preoperatively)
• post (postoperatively)
• pro (proactive)
• pseudo (pseudoscience)
• re (retrench)
• semi (semiannual)
• sub (substandard)
• super (supernatural)
• supra (suprapubic)
• trans (transaortic)
• tri (triglycerides)
• ultra (ultrasound)
• un (unconscious)
• under (underbite)

An old Oxford University Press style guide once said: “If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.” readers, please tell us about your hyphenation headaches.

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her work at

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