Using Hyphens in Spanish

They Are Less Common in Spanish Than in English

bluish flower
Los petales son blanco-azules. (The petals are bluish white.). Photo by Jacinta Lluch Valero; licensed via Creative Commons.

Beginning Spanish students, at least those who speak English as a first language, have a tendency to overuse hyphens. Hyphens (known as guiones) are used much less in Spanish than they are in English. They are used infrequently in the written form of everyday speech, finding use most often in journalese and in writing of a less casual nature.

The primary time hyphens are used in Spanish is to combine two adjectives or two nouns of equal status to form a compound word. This principle should be made clear by the following examples:

  • Es un curso teórico-práctico. (It is a course that's theoretical and practical.)
  • relaciones sino-estadounidenses (Chinese-U.S. relations)
  • el vuelo Madrid-Paris (the Madrid-to-Paris flight)
  • literatura hispano-árabe (Spanish-Arabic literature)
  • Los pétalos son blanco-azules. (The petals are bluish white.)

Note, as in some of the above examples, that the second adjective in compound adjectives formed in this way agrees in number and gender with the noun being described, but the first adjective typically remains in the singular masculine form.

An exception to the above rule occurs when the first part of the compound form uses a shortened form of a word rather than a word that could stand alone. The shortened form then functions something like a prefix, and no hyphen is used. An example is sociopolítico (socio-political), where socio is a shortened form of sociológico.

Hyphens can also be used to join two dates, as in English: la guerra de 1808-1814 (the war of 1808-1814).

Here are some examples of cases where hyphens are not used in Spanish where they are used (or can be, depending on the writer) in English:

  • Numbers: veintiuno (twenty-one), veintiocho (twenty-eight)
  • Words formed with prefixes: antifascista (anti-fascist), antisemitismo (anti-Semitism), precocinar (pre-cook), cuasilegal (quasi-legal)
  • Words or phrases formed by two words that don't have the same status: hispanohablante (Spanish-speaking), bienintencionado (well-meaning), amor propio (self-respect)

Finally, it is common in English to combine two words and hyphenate them to form a compound modifier, especially when preceding a noun. Usually, such words are translated as a phrase or single word in Spanish or aren't translated word for word. Examples:

  • well-informed citizenry (ciuidadanía bien informada)
  • sub-zero temperatures (temperaturas bajo cero)
  • good-natured person (persona bondadosa)
  • man-eating tiger (tigre que come hombres)
  • high-intelligence individuals (individuos de alta inteligencia)