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Using Hyphens

Ask a Teacher: Using Hyphens
Ask a Teacher: Using Hyphens
Using Hyphens
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Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we will answer a question from Yousra, from Egypt, about how to use hyphens when making a compound adjective.


Hello, my name is Yousra from Egypt.

I would like to know when I should use a hyphen (-) between two words like, “top-selling” or “well-being.”



Dear Yousra,

Thank you for your question! In this week’s program, we will explain how to use hyphens to make compound adjectives.

What is a hyphen?

A hyphen (-) is used to combine two or more words together to create a compound word.

Do not confuse a hyphen with a longer dash (–). In writing, we use a longer dash like a comma, (,) or a period (.) to separate sentences.

What is a compound adjective?

Compound adjectives are modifiers formed by combining adjectives with other adjectives, nouns, and even adverbs. We use them as a single expression to describe the noun that comes after.

The compound adjective “top-selling” from your question is a great example.

The top-selling employee had the most sales for the month.

Here, the two adjectives, “top” and “selling” are combined into one to describe the employee. “Top-selling” means “having the most sales.”

We use hyphens to create compound adjectives, but there are some important rules for creating them with hyphens.

How to use hyphens to make compound adjectives

1. Only use a hyphen when the two words could be misunderstood, and the compound adjective acts together as a single expression. Here is an example:

The well behaved cat slept all day. (no hyphen, incorrect)

The well-behaved cat slept all day. (hyphen, correct)

In this example, “well-behaved” acts like one expression.

If we separate the two words “well” and “behaved”, the sentence does not make sense. And it could be misunderstood.

2. Use only a hyphen in a compound adjective when it comes before a noun. Example:

I love old-fashioned clothes. (Hyphen, correct)

I love clothes that are old-fashioned. (Hyphen, incorrect)

I love clothes that are old fashioned. (No hyphen, correct)

3. You do not need a hyphen between an adverb and an adjective, especially when using a present participle adjective or a past participle adjective.

The urgently-needed doctor arrived on time.

(Hyphen, incorrect)

The urgently needed doctor arrived on time.

(No hyphen, correct)

These are just a few basic rules to help you create compound adjectives when writing or speaking. Please let us know if these rules, explanations, and examples have helped you, Yousra.

Next week on Ask a Teacher, we will explore using hyphens to create compound nouns!

What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

compound adjectives n. (grammar) two adjectives that, together, have one meaning

confusev. to mix up someone's mind or ideas, or to make something difficult to understand

modifier – n. (grammar) a word (such as an adjective or adverb) or phrase that describes another word or group of words

behave –v. to act in an acceptable or correct way

old-fashioned –adj. of or relating to the past: generally no longer used or replaced by something more recent

participle – n. (grammar) a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action and that can also be used like an adjective