High Quality or High-Quality: Understanding When to Use a Hyphen

Some would say hyphens are going the way of dinosaurs, disappearing in favor of compound words. But they are not extinct just yet, so knowing when to use one and when to skip it is important.    

The difference between “high-quality” and “high quality” is determined by the location of the noun that the phrase should modify. High-quality indicates a compound adjective where the word “high” modifies the word quality rather than the noun that follows. The only time you don’t need a hyphen is when a noun does not follow the phrase. 

Sometimes, removing the hyphen can cause confusion for readers in understanding what a compound word or phrase is modifying. Read on to learn more about hyphens, common words requiring hyphens, and what the phrases “high-quality” and “high quality” mean.  

Understanding Hyphens: Why and When You Should Use Them 

A hyphen is a punctuation mark that you can use to join words or parts of words together (source). We should not confuse this with a dash, though both look quite similar. You should only use a dash to separate full statements or thoughts, and you should add a space on both sides (source). 

Conversely, you should not separate a hyphen by a space on either side. You can think of it this way — the purpose of a dash is to separate ideas, while the purpose of a hyphen is to join ideas or words together. 

The most common and important reason for you to use a hyphen in your writing is to avoid confusion for your reader in understanding what an adjective or adjectival phrase should modify. Let’s take a look at an example:

1.     I went to the car dealership to meet the antique car salesman.

2.     I went to the car dealership to meet the antique-car salesman.

Reading the above sentences, you may be thinking they are exactly the same. But, if you read the first sentence more closely, your reader may wonder whether the car is antique (meaning old), or perhaps it is the salesman himself who is antique. 

Using a hyphen in between antique and car shows that, rather than modifying salesman, the two words antique and car become a compound adjective, antique modifying the car rather than the salesman.  

This is one simple example of how using a hyphen, while seemingly insignificant, is important for clarity. There are other uses for hyphens as well, including for prefixes, particular parts of words like “multi” and “self,” and certain phrases, including GPA or “grade-point average.”  

When Words Require Hyphens

There is a multitude of spelling nuances in English, and hyphens are just one example. The rules surrounding hyphens are certainly a bit complicated and can be down-right confusing.  

While they are not incredibly common to most words, and you’ll not see them all that often, hyphens are important where and when required. 

It is also true that some words that used to have a hyphen no longer do so, though. Some examples of words that you do not need to write with a hyphen include email (e-mail), living room (living-room), bus driver (bus-driver), or nowadays (now-a-days).

Again, the central reason for using a hyphen is simply to avoid confusion for your reader. When confusion is no longer likely to occur — such as in words that have become increasingly common, like “email” — a hyphen is unnecessary.  

Categories and Examples: Proper Spelling with Hyphens

In the table below, you’ll find a list of common words and categories that require hyphens. However, the list is not exhaustive. 

The rules surrounding hyphens are in a state of fluctuation — meaning that there is not 100 percent agreement across all authorities and editing styles, so you may see some words combined, with a hyphen, or spaced (source).

When it comes to adjectives and adjectival phrases, it is best to remember that if a noun follows a two (or more) part adjective, you’ll likely need a hyphen (source). 

That is probably the easiest rule for you to remember, and it also applies to the phrase “high-quality.” It all comes down to whether a noun follows the phrase — we’ll look at more examples of this a bit later. 

For all other categories, you’ll find that, as you become more fluent and familiar with English grammar, you’ll begin to recognize particular words where hyphens are common.  

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to some of the categories below, such as prefixes. Some words with prefixes require a hyphen, while others do not. When in doubt, just remember that a dictionary is your best bet for double-checking. 

Table with Examples

TypeHyphenated WordExample Sentence:
Two-Part Adjectives or Longer Adjectival Phrases that Precede a Noun
•Family-owned
•Mile-long
•Blue-eyed
•Out-of-work
•Full-time
•Student-athlete
•Tax-deductible
•Up-to-date 
•I worked at the family-owned business for 10 years.
•The blue-eyed little girl was friendly and sweet.
•I work out-of-state since I live in New Jersey, but my office is in New York.
•My credit card bills are all up-to-date.
Some Prefixes
(Note: not all prefixes require a hyphen)
•Co
•Non
•Ex
•Pre
•She was a non-English speaking presenter at the Academy.
•He and his ex-wife co-parent amicably. 
•I have a pre-existing medical condition.
Numbers or Units of Measure we use Adjectivally •12-inch
•Twentieth-century
•3-week  
•You’ll need a 12-inch ruler for the art project. 
•I took a 3-week intensive course covering English grammar. 
Words Containing “Self”•Self-employed
•Self-sufficient
•My father is self-employed.
•Her daughter is very self-sufficient for a 10-year-old.
Semi when connected to a word that begins with an “I” •Semi-intelligent
•Semi-influential
•Some animals are considered semi-intelligent creatures.
•Celebrities are sometimes semi-influential.
Line and Word breaksThis refers to times when you are writing, and one word does not fit but, rather, bleeds onto the next line of text. n/a 
Words that include “all” or “half” and “wide” when we use them with a proper noun•all-encompassing
•half-hearted
•University-wide
•The change was all-encompassing and affected everyone in the company.
•I gave a half-hearted hug to my estranged Uncle.
•The University-wide policy has been in effect for one year. 

A Few More Tips to Remember for Hyphen Usage

Another instance not mentioned above where you’ll find writers using a hyphen with two-part adjectives is when there is an understanding that something is between two things, such as with nationalities and borders between countries. For example, you’ll use a hyphen with “India-Pakistan” or “Anglo-Saxon” (source).

Additionally, it is very rare to find proper nouns connected with the word “wide.” University-wide is the most common in that regard.  

And finally, one more “rule” worth mentioning here pertains to compound words or modifiers with a common base word. With these phrases, you can remove the base word to avoid repetition, but you should retain the hyphen (source). You may see this with numbers or units of measure.  

Here’s an example:

1.     Sprinting practice took place in 1-, 2-, and 3-part intervals. 

Again, it would be nearly impossible for you to remember all of these examples, including those not listed above, so be sure to consult a dictionary when you need to be certain as to whether you should add a hyphen or not. A good reference work is The Oxford New English Dictionary, which you can easily find on Amazon.

Another good tip is to get yourself a copy of Dryers English, a style guide, as it will help you become more accustomed to some of these spelling and grammar nuances. You can also find this work on Amazon.  

When You Should Avoid Hyphens

Just as there are times to use hyphens, there are also times to avoid them.  

Earlier, we said that two-part adjectival phrases often require a hyphen if they precede a noun. The only time you will not add a hyphen, in this case, is when the first part of that phrase is an adverb and ends in an “ly.”  Here is an example:

1.     I had a ridiculously small lunch, so I was starving by the time I left work today. 

Even though “ridiculously small” is a compound and it does precede a noun, you do not need to add a hyphen given that ridiculously ends in “ly.” 

If you are wondering why this is the case, the easiest way to explain it is that if we took out the word “small,” you would read the sentence as “I had a ridiculously lunch, so I was starving by the time I left work today.” 

That is grammatically incorrect. Therefore, there’s really no confusion for your reader — he or she will know that both the words ridiculously and small modify the noun, lunch. 

Another instance where you can avoid the use of a hyphen is when the adjectival phrase or compound does not precede a noun but, rather, follows it. Let’s take a look at this more in detail with the phrases “high-quality” and “high quality.” 

Image by Dylan Gillis via Unsplash

Understanding Meaning: High-Quality versus High Quality 

The meaning of high quality, both with and without a dash, is simply that someone deems something to be “very good or well-made” (source). You’ll often see examples in discussions about “high-quality education” or perhaps “high-quality products or services.” 

As we stated earlier, the tricky part is in understanding what, precisely, is high quality. High quality falls into the category of a compound adjective, so the rule you want to remember is that if the phrase precedes a noun, you will need a hyphen. If it does not precede a noun, you do not need a hyphen, despite its being a compound adjective.

Let’s look at two sentences below — one where you’ll see “high-quality” and the second where no hyphen is necessary.

  1.  I went to Penn State University because I knew I would receive a high-quality education.
  2. The education I received at Penn State University was high quality.

Both of these sentences are communicating the same idea. However, in the first sentence, the phrase “high-quality” precedes a noun (education), whereas, in the second sentence, the adjectival compound high quality follows the noun.  

Here is another example:

1.     The restaurant served beautiful meals containing high-quality ingredients.

2.     The meals the restaurant served contained ingredients that were high quality.

Again, here you can see that in the second sentence, high quality follows the noun. There is no confusion for your reader about what is high quality — you can easily infer that the writer is speaking of the ingredients. 

When a Hyphen (or Lack of) Can Change Your Intended Meaning

Often, you can assume that the confusion your reader may experience if you forget the hyphen will not be a problem — he or she will likely easily figure out what you are trying to say. But there are indeed situations where this can become tricky. 

Take a look at another example below — this one with a different phrase than “high-quality or high quality.”

1.     The high school students were arrested for breaking and entering.

2.     The high-school students were arrested for breaking and entering.

These two sentences look and sound the same, but they are certainly ambiguous. 

In the first sentence, you cannot be certain what the word “high” is modifying. You could read the first sentence and assume that the school students themselves were intoxicated. 

However, in the second sentence, adding the hyphen communicates clearly that the students were not at all intoxicated but, rather, they were high-school-age students or teenagers. 

With phrases like high-quality versus high quality, the ambiguity is less severe. Still, it is essential since you always want to ensure clarity when communicating, whether in speaking or writing. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

If you’d like to learn more about hyphens and these types of phrases in English, take a look at our article on “real time” or “real-time.”

Final Thoughts 

English grammar is probably one of the most complicated things you will need to wrap your mind around as you learn the language. Still, you will be surprised by how quickly some of these confusing questions become easy answers.  

When it comes to hyphens, just try to remember one rule: if your reader would be confused without it, add it. If there is likely no confusion that will result from omitting the hyphen, it’s okay to let it go. 

For the most part, trust your instincts and, when in doubt, consult your dictionary to determine the best spelling.

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