Hands on vs. Hands-on

  malza  —  Grammar Tips
Hands-on" approach, "hands-on" experience, "hands-on" work - using this structure has become very common especially during the last years, in the English vocabulary. It is a very popular way of presenting one's practical experience in a CV, a letter of recommendation etc. But what about "hands on"? A usual replacement we find on the internet for "hands-on" is "hands on", and we have recently started to see "hands on experience" and so on. Does it mean the same thing and is it correct, or is it a misspelling and should we never use it like this? Let's see what our specialists at Grammar.com say about this!

Hands on vs. Hands-on

"Hands-on" is a compound adjective, that uses the metaphoric image of actually putting your hands on something. The structure is used to describe and illustrate how you physically do something, with your own hands, gaining practical experience and not only studying theoretical aspects of a work or watching someone else doing it. So used next to words such as "experience", "approach" or "work", the adjective "hands-on" refers to something actually made practically by one, not only in theory.

"Hands on", on the other hand, is not an adjective. Therefore, it cannot be used to describe something and, obviously, it does not mean the same thing with "hands-on". This doesn't mean, anyway, that you will never find "hands" and "on" written one next to the other. It only means that it's wrong to use it with the same purpose as "hands-on". The examples below will show you exactly the difference between these two.

When do we use "hands on"?

What you have to remember is that unlike "hands-on", "hands on" is not an expression or adjective. It is simply two words placed one next to the other in the appropriate context.

Example: Please put your hands on the table! - "hands on" are simply two words one next to the other, a noun and a preposition. It is not an expression and cannot be used before the words "experience" or "approach" as a synonym for "practical".

When do we use "hands-on"?

"Hands-on" is used as an adjective synonym with "practical", before certain words, describing an experienced person in doing something.

Example: I have worked for five years as a waiter, so I have hands-on experience in presenting the menu, taking orders and serving food to clients. - "hands-on" is used as a synonym for "practical", real work experience.


The difference between "hands on" and "hands-on" is obvious and easy to remember. "Hands-on" is a compound adjective, whereas "hands on" is not, it is only a random happening that a noun is placed next to a preposition. If you choose to spell "hands on" instead of "hands-on", it's a misspelling. Both structures are only correct if used in the appropriate contexts illustrated in the examples above.

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