Do hyphens matter in IELTS? Yes and No.
My simple guide to hyphens will help you:
- understand when hyphen rules ARE important
- understand when hyphens are NOT important
The purpose of hyphens in IELTS Writing
The main purpose of hyphens is to join words or parts of words together, usually to make the sentence clearer (to avoid ambiguity).
Look at the two examples below. What’s the difference between them?
- I’m a small business owner.
- I’m a small-business owner.
- I’m a small business-owner.
Sentence 1 is confusing (it needs a hyphen somewhere).
Sentence 2 means that I own a small-business.
Sentence 3 means that I am small (and I own a business).
Can you see what a difference the hyphen makes to the meaning?
There are many examples like this, where the hyphen makes things clearer e.g
- a short story-writer/ a short-story writer
- one-night stand/one night-stand
- 24-hour shifts, twenty four-hour sifts
- an ancient-history teacher/ an ancient history-teacher
- a little used-vehicle/a little-used vehicle
Rule 1: Hyphens in compound adjectives
When two or more words are combined to describe a noun, the hyphen shows that they are single adjectives.
e.g. a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a state-of-the-art classroom
Here are some of the combinations that can make compound adjectives.
You do NOT need to learn these rules – they are just here for your reference.
- Adjective + Past Participle: old-fashioned, absent-minded, strong-willed, narrow-minded, short-haired, kind-hearted
- Adjective + Present Participle: good-looking, long-lasting, slow-moving
- Adjective + noun: full-length, last-minute
- Noun + noun: part-time, south-west
- Noun + adjective: world-famous, sugar-free
- Noun + Past Participle: middle-aged, sun-dried, sugar-laden
- Noun + Present Participle: English-speaking, time-saving, mouth-watering, man-eating
- Adverb + Past Participle: well-behaved, brightly-lit, densely-populated, well-educated, well-paid, badly-paid, widely-recognized, family-owned
- Adverb + Present Participle: never-ending
- Past Participle + adverb: run-down, worn-out
Although hyphens are being used less often, they can be useful for new or ‘invented’ expressions:
- a must-see movie
- I’m the go-to person for IELTS
- to-die-for chocolate
These expressions could be useful for General Training IELTS Writing Task 1 informal letters.
Do you really need a hyphen?
You don’t need a hyphen:
if there is no confusion, because the words are often seen together e.g. high school musical, living room, estate agent, post office (‘open compound words’)
if the words have become familiar e.g. e-mail/email, on-line/online or words like notebook and postman (‘closed compound words’).
when compound adjectives come after the noun they don’t need a hyphen e.g. He’s a well-known actor. This actor is very well known.
- adverbs ending in -ly e.g. a badly drawn diagram
You don’t need to learn all of these rules and exceptions unless you’re a professional proofreader or you’re editing something for publication.
Writers often struggle to decide when to use a hyphen or a gap or no gap in these types of words and they often have to check in a dictionary.
In the exam, you won’t be able to check a dictionary, so don’t worry about dropping a hyphen.
Rule 2: Hyphens and numbers
It is quite difficult to write certain numbers without hyphens. This is useful to know for Academic Writing Task 1 (describing charts).
- Paraphrasing time periods.
‘The graph shows changes over 10 years‘.
‘The graph shows changes over a 10-year period.’
When you turn the number of years (plural) into an adjective, it gains a hyphen and loses an ‘s’.
The boy was 4 years old./ He was a 4-year-old boy.
This house has 2 bedrooms./ This is a 2-bedroom house.
My flight was 4 hours./ It was a 4-hour flight.
- Compound numbers from 21 to 99
Twenty-one people passed.
It’s ninety-nine percent accurate.
- Fractions (without a/an)
More than two-thirds of the population voted.
A third of the population voted.
- Before dates
She’s in her mid-20s.
Rule 3: Prefixes
Words with pre-fixes often need a hyphen to make them clearer because of the spelling.
There is a shop in the UK called ‘The Co-op’ (short form of ‘co-operative’). Without the hyphen, it would be ‘The Coop’ (where chickens sleep).
However, even words like ‘co-worker’ are starting to drop the hyphen (‘coworker’) as they become more commonly used.
There are similar problems with words like ‘re-enter’ ‘re-do’ and ‘de-ice’, so the hyphen makes them clearer.
There is a difference in meaning for example between ‘recover’ (= get better) and ‘re-cover’ (to cover again) or ‘repress’ (= to keep under control) and ‘re-press’ (= press again) or ‘resent’ (= to feel bitter and angry) and ‘re-sent’ (= sent again)
- Prefixes ‘self-‘ ‘ex-‘
e.g. self-confident, ex-boyfriend
- Before proper nouns/adjectives (with Capital Letters)
e.g. a trans-Atlantic flight, mid-January, pre-Covid
Dangers: Hyphens at the end of a line
If you’re writing by hand on a piece of paper and you do not have enough space on a line to write the whole word, don’t break it up with a hyphen. This just looks weird.
What about this? Is it ok?
We need to consider the long- and short-term implications.
Yes it is! It’s called a ‘trailing’ hyphen. You could use a phrase like this in IELTS Writing Task 2.
Hyphens in IELTS Listening gap-fill
Gap fill? Gap-fill? Gapfill?
Would you be confused if I did not use a hyphen for ‘gap-fill’? I don’t think you would, though anyone who does not know what a gap-fill is might be a little confused in a sentence like:
‘Now we’re going to do the gap fill exercises’ (because ‘fill’ is also a verb).
We have seen that hyphens are necessary to avoid confusion, and that you shouldn’t worry too much about them. If you drop a hyphen in the Writing, you will not lose points.
- But what about in the Listening and Reading tests?
I’ve been through the most recent Cambridge tests (Books 9 – 15) and cannot find a single instance of a hyphenated word in the gap-fill answers of the Listening Test (the Reading test doesn’t really matter, because you would be copying directly from the original anyway).
- How many words are hyphenated words counted as?
All hyphenated words are counted as ONE word, so this is something to consider if the gap-fill gives you a one-word limit.
‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’.
There are 5 words in this sentence.
- Will I lose points if I write a compound word as two words instead of one?
I was recently asked this question about ‘eye sight’.
The answer depends on the number of words you are allowed.
- If you are only allowed one word in the gap, believe it or not, you will NOT lose points for writing two words in THIS situation because you have written the correct answer.
- If you are allowed 2 words, and you write ‘eye sight’ or ‘eye-sight’ or ‘eyesight’, they would all be accepted and you will NOT LOSE POINTS, because you have proven to the examiner that you have understood the Listening correctly.
Although technically ‘eye sight’ should be ONE WORD according to the reference books, this is NOT what they are testing in the Listening section.
This is why the Listening and Reading papers are marked by trained ‘clerical markers’ (real people), and not by robots.
Remember: the IELTS Listening test is a test of Listening, not punctuation.
The reason that spelling is important is that it is the only way of checking you have correctly understood the Listening text.
For example, if the speaker says ‘We went by ship’ and you write in the gap,
- They went by SHEEP.
it is impossible for the examiner to know if you have correctly understood the word ‘ship’. So spelling IS important to test your listening comprehension.
IELTS would not deduct points in the Listening for a word that can be punctuated in many different ways.
Hyphens vs dashes
What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?
Hyphens JOIN things, whereas dashes SEPARATE things.
A hyphen (-) joins two words, or two parts of a word.
A dash (—) has a different purpose. There are 2 types (though I only found this out at the age of 50, so I don’t think it’s important).
Use this to show a range e.g. people aged 18-24.
(This looks exactly like a hyphen to me!)
The em-dash separates information, like brackets.
The fact that I had to google how to find this on a Mac keyboard (option-shift-minus) seems proof that we should not worry too much about this topic.
Em dashes replace punctuation such as commas, colons/semi-colons, and brackets (parentheses).
There is always a space before and after the em-dash.
Some people do NOT recommend using dashes in formal, academic writing as they consider them too informal.
The most common mistake with dashes is when there is no space after the word, as we can see below:
Milk chocolate contains twice as much fat as dark chocolate– 32% and 16% respectively.
Milk chocolate contains twice as much fat as dark chocolate – 32% and 16% respectively.
If you’d like more in-depth rules about hyphens from a proofreader’s point of view, check out this useful guide from Proofread Anywhere.
Interesting facts about hyphens
- The word ‘hyphen’ comes from the Greek for ‘together’.
- Winston Churchill (UK Prime Minister) apparently said hyphens are ‘a blemish to be avoided wherever possible’.
- Woodrow Wilson (US Prime Minister) said the hyphen was ‘the most un-American thing in the world’ (whatever that means)
- James Joyce (my favourite author) hated punctuation in general and gradually stopped using it. He called ‘inverted commas’ ‘perverted commas’.
- Hyphenated surnames are considered to be ‘posh-sounding’ (‘posh sounding? No hyphen?) and often the subject of mockery. In Wales, where I’m from, hyphenated surnames are quite common (my maiden name was Harrison-Rees. It sounds much posher than ‘Wattam’).
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