The use of hyphens (e.g. free-to-air, with no spaces between letters) is classed as ‘word punctuation’. Mostly, hyphens indicate that two or more words or numbers are to be read together (compound words) to create a single or new unit of meaning. There are no simple rights and wrongs for hyphenating words. You need to use a dictionary to check whether a compound expression is acceptable as separate words, as a joined-up single word or a hyphenated word. Even well-known dictionaries can follow different rules (e.g. from one dictionary: eyeball, eye shadow, eye-catching). If you can’t find the word in the dictionary, write as separate words. You will need to know about:

Spelling checkers seldom help you with hyphenation by signalling that a compound word or number needs to be one word, two separate words or hyphenated. The safest thing that you can do is consult an up-to-date dictionary (hard copy or online) to keep in touch with vanishing hyphens in words, for example non-traditional (now nontraditional), e-mail (now email) and on-line (now online).

Hyphens in compound words

A compound consists of two or more words that combine to make a new meaning. Compounds can be correctly written as separate words, with hyphens or as one word (e.g. fairy tales / fairy-tales / fairytales; proof reading / proof-reading / proofreading). Make your choice from a good Australian dictionary and be consistent.

Many compounds are now written as one word (without hyphens). If you write these words as two or more words instead of single words or use a hyphen, you are spelling them incorrectly. There are over 2,000 one-word compound words.
Common one-word compounds

alongside, another, aftermath, anybody, background, beforehand, bookmaker, bypass, brainstorm, cannot, commonplace, downpour, elsewhere, everywhere, everything, however, input, keyboard, keypad, mainland, meantime, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, rattlesnake, roadblock, scarecrow, somewhat, spokesperson, stocktaking, therefore, underachievement, underdeveloped, underestimate, underground, update, upheaval, whatever, widespread, without


Use a hyphen to join most words that form a compound noun.

Most truck transport is undertaken by owner-drivers.

Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper was my mother-in-law.

The transport minister gave the go-ahead for the road project.

The athlete showed a single-mindedness of intent in his desire to win.


Use a hyphen to join most words that form a compound adjective (descriptive word) to make a single meaning before or after the noun it is describing.

Research shows that accident-prone people are likely to be distracted and stressed.

There is an alarming rise in self-induced injuries among young teenagers.

It is a well-established fact that the teenage years can be emotionally turbulent.

A decision to close the hospital had far-reaching implications for country people.

University essay writing requires a word processing program that is up-to-date.

Health workers were striving to keep the community disease-free.

Back to top of page

Hyphens to add prefixes

A prefix is a group of letters added in front of a word to change its meaning and form a new word.

Prefix + existing word = new word
hyper link hyperlink
extra ordinary extraordinary
inter national international
Common prefixes

anti, auto, bi, co, counter, di, dis, ex, extra, hyper, hypo, inter, intra, mis, neo, non, post, pro, re, semi, sub, super, supra, un


Only use hyphens to add prefixes to words when the prefix could be misread or be confused with another word.
Hyphen used to avoid vowel confusion

de-ice, de-emphasise, pre-eminent, re-enter, anti-aircraft, semi-official

Hyphen used to avoid confusion with other words
Prefix+hyphen+word Meaning Word without hyphen Meaning
re-sign sign again resign give up a job
re-creation exact reproduction recreation a fun activity
re-cover cover again recover get better


Four general rules for using a hyphen to add a prefix
Use a hyphen to add a prefix when: Examples
the prefix is followed by a capital letter non-English speaking, un-Australian, pre-Christianity
the prefix is followed by an expression in italics or quotes take an anti-‘reconciliation’ stance
using co- (meaning joint) and ex- (meaning former) co-host of a show, ex-president of the company
adding e- (for electronic) e-book, e-resource, e-commerce (but not email)

Back to top of page

Hyphens in written numbers

When you use numbers in writing, there are a number of rules for using hyphens.

Hyphenate numbers (from 21 to 99) and fractions that are written as words.
Numbers 21 to 99 in words

twenty-seven; four hundred and fifty-five; thirty-six thousand

Fractions in words

one-quarter; three-halves; two and three-quarters


Hyphenate compound adjectives that involve numbers.
the 48-year-old film star; three-year-old children; the five-part series; a 21-gun salute; the fifth-storey apartment


Three general rules for using a hyphen to express dates, eras and numbers
Use a hyphen when you use: Examples
a prefix preceding a date post-1929; pre-1770
‘century’ as part of a compound adjective sixteenth-century art (but art created in the sixteenth century)
the suffixes ‘fold’ or ‘odd’ after a number 2000-odd people attended the rally; the purpose of the project was three-fold

Back to top of page

Good resources for hyphens

Make sure that you have a good, up-to-date Australian dictionary. It is best to choose one dictionary and keep with the hyphenation practices of that publication. Good online dictionaries will give you the most up-to-date information.

The Macquarie Dictionary 6th edition (2013)

The Macquarie Dictionary Online (updated annually)

The Australian Oxford Dictionary 2nd edition (2004)

Back to top of page

Download a print friendly version of this content.