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Hyphens: those little dashes we sometimes use in English to make compound nouns and adjectives like hard-working. But how do you know when to use a hyphen and when not to? This session will help you.

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6 Minute Vocabulary

Hyphenation

My sixty-year-old mother-in-law did a ten-foot dive into the swimming pool and was greatly admired. Why do we write some of those phrases with hyphens but not others? It's all to do with using numbers, adverbs and where these phrases appear in the sentence. Listen to 6 Minute Vocabulary with  hard-working presenters Neil and Catherine to find out more. Then have a go at our practice activities.

Listen to the audio

Hiển thị văn bản ghi âm (hay video) Giấu văn bản ghi âm (hay video)

Neil
Hello! Welcome to 6 Minute Vocabulary. I'm Neil.

Catherine
And I'm Catherine. And today we're talking about hyphenation.

Neil
Hyphens are those little signs – like dashes – that we use in writing to join two words together.

Catherine
Yes, like in old-fashioned. There's always a hyphen between old and fashioned. Let's start with a clip from Brian. He's a news reporter, and he's reporting from a high school about an election.

Neil
Think about this question while you're listening: How does Brian describe the young people at the school? Here's Brian.

INSERT
Brian
I asked some eighteen-year-old students at this secondary school how they're voting in this year's election. They're all hard-working young people. Twenty-two of them are undecided and are likely to make a last-minute decision. But a sizable group say today's politicians are not well respected and their attitudes are out of date. Back to the studio.

Neil
So we asked you: How does Brian describe the young people at the school?  

Catherine
And the answer is: He says they are hard-working.

Neil
That means they work hard. Now there are lots of compound adjectives like hard-working that we make with an adjective or adverb like hard plus a present participle like working.

Catherine
And we always write them with a hyphen. So hard hyphen working (hard-working).

Neil
And we can make compound adjectives in other ways too. Listen to this clip for three more examples.

INSERT
Brian
I asked some eighteen-year-old students at this secondary school how they're voting in this year's election. Twenty-two of them are undecided and are likely to make a last-minute decision.

Catherine
First we had eighteen-year-old students. Eighteen-year-old is an adjective made from three words joined together with hyphens. When we write age before a noun, we use hyphens.

Neil
Eighteen hyphen year hyphen old (eighteen-year-old).

Catherine
Exactly. And it's the same with numbers; for example, we write the phrase a two-door car like this:

Neil
A two hyphen door car (a two-door car). But that's only for numbers before the noun. If you write: the students are eighteen years old, you don't need hyphens.

Catherine
Now, the second compound in that clip was twenty-two.

Neil
And the rule is: always use hyphens in numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

Catherine
Twenty hyphen one (twenty-one). Two hundred and ninety hyphen nine (two hundred and ninety-nine).

Neil
Good. Now the last compound adjective we had there was last-minute. The students were going to make a last-minute decision.

Catherine
And that's the adjective last plus the noun minute, joined with a hyphen. Now for another clip. Listen out for some more compound adjectives.

INSERT
Brian
A sizable group say today's politicians are not well respected and their attitudes are out of date.

Catherine
Well respected. That's an adverb, well, and the past participle of a verb, respected. And together, they make an adjective, and the two parts of the adjective need a hyphen when we write them before a noun.

Neil
So it's a well-respected politician, with a hyphen: well hyphen respected politician (well-respected politician).

Catherine
Yes. But in a phrase like the politicians were well respected we don't use a hyphen, because the adjective comes after the noun, not before. And that rule is the same for three-word compound adjectives like out-of-date.

Neil
So, the phrase out-of-date attitudes has hyphens because the adjective is before the noun, but the phrase their attitudes are out of date doesn't have hyphens.

Catherine
Exactly. And one last rule is that we never use hyphens in compound adjectives that have an adverb which ends in -l-y.

Neil
No, we don't. So in phrases like a carefully written letter we don't use hyphens.

Catherine
Now let's talk about compound nouns. In our clip, Brian was reporting from a secondary school. The phrase secondary school is a compound noun - and there's no hyphen in it.

Neil
No, there isn't. Most compound nouns are written as two separate words.

Catherine
If you're not sure, check in a good dictionary. 

IDENT        
6 Minute Vocabulary from the BBC.

Catherine
And it's time for a quiz! Number one: What's the compound adjective in this sentence and does it need a hyphen? We were late because of the slow-moving traffic.

Neil
Slow-moving is the compound adjective, and it needs a hyphen.

Catherine
Very good! And number two. Is there a hyphen in a forty-mile run

Neil
Yes, there is. Forty hyphen mile run (forty-mile run).

Catherine
Number three: The teacher was very well liked. Is there a hyphen in well liked?

Neil
We don't need a hyphen there.

Catherine
Well done if you got those right. And before we go, here's a vocabulary tip. When you are reading, make a note of compound adjectives and nouns with - and without - hyphens. Keep a list and check it regularly.

Neil
Yes. There's more about this at bbclearningenglish.com. Join us again for more 6 Minute Vocabulary.

Both
Bye!

Downloads

You can download 6 Minute Vocabulary from our Unit 1 Downloads page. Remember, you can also subscribe to the podcast version.

Next

So, how was that for a 6-minute introduction to hyphens? Now it's time to practise. Test your hyphen-writing knowledge with ages, numbers and nouns in the next activity.

Session Vocabulary

  • Compound adjectives with hyphens:

    adjective/adverb + present participle
    a hard-working student

    ages and numbers before a noun
    a forty-year-old father, a two-door car

    numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine
    fifty-two

    adjective/adverb + noun
    a last-minute decision

    noun + adjective
    a world-famous athlete

    adverb/noun + past participle before a noun
    well-respected politicians

    three-word compound adjectives before a noun
    out-of-date fashion

    Compound adjectives without hyphens:

    adverb/noun + past participle after a noun
    the politicians were well respected

    three-word compound adjectives after a noun
    that voucher is out of date

    compound adjectives made with an adverb ending in –ly, both before and after a noun
    a carefully written letter, the letter was carefully written