The Hyphen Conundrum: When and Where to Use this Important Punctuation in Science

Hyphens (-) are commonplace in scientific writing. However, they are one of the most misused punctuation marks, and often, they are the source of much angst for writers and editors alike. So, here is what you need to know:

When Should You Use a Hyphen?

Hyphens are typically used for (1) compound adjectives, (2) prefixes (not all), and (3) suffixes (not all).

1) Compound Adjectives

Compound adjectives are adjectives that are made up of more than one word (e.g., a well-rounded experiment)


The hyphen is only used for the compound adjective if it precedes the noun it is describing (e.g., a hyphen should not be used here: an experiment that was well rounded).

A hyphen is not used when the first word of the compound adjective ends in 'ly' (e.g., a commercially produced plasmid).

2) Prefixes (e.g., anti, pre, non, un)

A hyphen can be used for some prefixes, but certainly not all. Here are some general rules to follow:

Use a hyphen when:

a) The prefix comes before a proper noun (e.g., non-Canadian funding opportunities).

b) The prefix comes before a word whose first letter is the same as the last letter in the prefix (e.g., anti-inflammatory).

NOTE: This isn't always the case (unfortunately) as words like 'cooperate' or 'coordinate' don't have hyphens.

c) The prefix, when adjoined, could lead to a mispronunciation of the word (e.g., co-worker instead of coworker).

d) Two words are spelled the same but have different meanings (e.g., We recovered the DAPI-stained cells OR We re-covered the DAPI-stained cells).

- In the latter example you are telling the reader that you are covering up the stained cells once again, and in the former example, you are saying that you isolated or obtained the stained cells. Two very different meanings and you will need to be cognizant of what you are intending to say.

3) Suffixes

Much like the prefixes, when using a suffix such as 'like', you typically see a hyphen (e.g., caspase-like activity)

Other Common Science Words Where Hyphen Confusion Reigns Supreme

Hyphens should not be used in: downregulate, upregulate, overexpress, underexpress

No doubt, hyphenation is confusing. However, use this page as a reference whenever you are struggling to decide whether to use this troublesome punctuation mark.

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