How to Use Hyphens & Dashes

Looking through the marketing copy of countless companies — including household-name brands — I see one error more than any other: ignorance over the use of hyphens.

It’s a tiny and much-neglected mark but for fully rounded and accurate writing you need to understand its usage.

…Oh, and if you thought I dropped a clanger there by not hyphenating ‘fully rounded’ you definitely need to read on.

Em&En – Nothing to do with Rapping

First of all we need to sort out some differences.  A hyphen is not a dash and you can see examples of both in that opening sentence.

Dashes are longer than hyphens and generally used to separate out part of a sentence.  In fact there are two types of dash, the em dash and the en dash.

Em Dashes

These are the longest of the punctuation marks.  They signal a break in the sentence, dividing off a part of it.  In the example of the opening sentence they work like parentheses, hiving off an ‘inserted’ thought that breaks the flow of the main sentence.  Using em dashes instead of parentheses can give a greater sense of emphasis.

You can also break the sentence with just one dash providing the sense of an afterthought — like I’ve done here.  Note that a true em dash isn’t properly catered for on your keyboard.  Programs such as Word will automatically lengthen a hyphen if they see it used in a certain context, but this will actually be a shorter en dash – like here.  To create a proper em dash press Alt and type 0151 into the numeric keypad.  However, in modern practice it is entirely acceptable to use the shorter en dash instead.

En Dashes

Shorter than em dashes but longer than hyphens, these generally indicate a range, such as working Tuesday – Friday, or the store opens from 9.30 – 6.00pm, or suitable for ages 4 – 8.  You can create this using Alt 0150 on the numeric keypad.

Hyphens

Hyphens are the shortest of these punctuation marks and are used for the following:

  • To signal the splitting of a word that falls at the end of the line — a practice best avoided if possible.
  • To join together two or more words that work together in creating meaning.

This is an important signal because without hyphens meanings will change.   A fat-free chicken is a healthy meal, whilst a fat free chicken is a large bird for which you don’t have to pay.

Now, here’s the bad news: knowing which words need hyphenation is not an exact science.  There are many exceptions and so the firmest advice is to look in the dictionary if you want to be completely sure.  However, there are key principles that will help you get it right in most cases.

One of the most common areas for mistakes is compound adjectives, where you use a multiple-word expression to describe a noun, as was the case just now.  ‘Expression’ is the noun being described by a phrase meaning ‘more than one word’.  Neither ‘multiple’ nor ‘word’ convey the complete meaning by themselves so are hyphenated to demonstrate the link.

Importantly, you should only use this hyphenation when the compound modifier comes before the noun.  If it comes afterwards no hyphen is used:

  • He was a well-respected speaker.  The speaker was well respected.
  • Come to Luigi’s, the pasta-lovers’ paradise!  Luigi’s is a paradise for pasta lovers.
  • The up-to-date accounts are ready to be sent.  The accounts are up to date.

The exception here is when the adjective compounds end in –ing or –ed.  Here they will often take a hyphen even when they follow the noun:

  • The student was hard-working.
  • George and Maria were middle-aged.

In all examples of hyphens the single most important rule of grammar is generally the one to fall back on: do whatever helps clarify meaning.  So for instance you should always use hyphens to join compound adjectives describing ages or lengths of time.  10 year old boys could be 10 boys of a year old, or an unspecified number of boys who are all 10. 

10 year-old boys is the first.

10-year-old boys the second.

Not With –ly Adverbs

Remember I pointed out earlier that ‘fully rounded’ should not be hyphenated, even though it is a compound modifier coming before the noun in that sentence?  That’s because the exception to this rule is adverbs.  Any compound modifier that uses an adverb ending in –ly should not use a hyphen.  So we can have

  • The highly talented conductor
  • The happily married couple
  • The recently departed managing director

The reason for this is that the –ly adverb is considered to be giving a clear enough signal that it is modifying the following word, so the hyphen is unnecessary for clarity.

Be careful, though.  A word such as ‘friendly’ is primarily an adjective, so you would write ‘friendly-looking man’.  You need to think about the function of the words.

Other Uses

There are a number of compound words where no matter what the context the component words are clearly working together in meaning and therefore hyphenated:

  • Mother-in-law
  • Merry-go-round
  • Jack-of-all-trades

Also any words where a capital letter works with another word need a hyphen, such as T-shirt, X-ray and V-neck. Numbers between 21 and 99 should take hyphens when written as words, such as seventy-six or sixty-fourth.  Fractions should also use hyphens when written out as words, such as two-thirds or three-fifths.

Most people seem familiar with the use of hyphens to link prefixes, such as anti-terrorist, post-apocalyptic or non-religious.

Times, They Are a-Changin’

I said early on that this is one of the most fluid and often disputed areas of English punctuation and the guide here is only brief.  Certainly with the electronic age people have increasingly dispensed with the hyphen, such that in 2007 the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed the hyphens from 16,000 words to reflect altered usage¹.  Pot-belly became pot belly and pigeon-hole became pigeonhole.  This is why the advice still stands to check an up-to-date dictionary, just to be sure it hasn’t become an uptodate dictionary!

However, for all the ambiguity and flexibility, your business writing will still look sloppy if you don’t follow the basic rules for hyphenation.  It also helps with the central purpose of all punctuation: clarity.

  • The light blue box was too much for him to carry.  (Less shameful if it’s light-blue)
  • I’ll have to repress those trousers.  (Were they getting bolshie?  Maybe re-press…)
  • After taking over the rental business Alan was amazed to see the dirty video shelves.  (I’m hoping this sentence is perfectly correct and needs no hyphen)

1. BBC News – Hyphens

About David

I'm a professional copywriter from Nexus Copywriting and there's a little more about me here. Or, if you'd like to see how I can benefit your business, find out about my copywriting services.
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4 Responses to How to Use Hyphens & Dashes

  1. Tara Lawrence-Stuart says:

    I do medical transcription at home and my supervisor told me that the company does not want the word x-ray left hanging, such as typing it and leaving it hanging, i.e., “x-ray.” She told me that in MS Word I should hit X+Shift Ctrl-hyphen (or -) to move the whole word x-ray down to the next line. Well, that works–except instead of a hyphen I get an em-dash, which is thinner and slightly longer, and is unacceptable. She gets a hyphen and not an em-dash. So what am I doing wrong? I have searched my Microsoft Word help while in the document, and the Web, and can’t phrase my question to where it can be understood and I get help. I want the word to carry over:
    x-ray. [like that]. Can you help? It must be terribly simple.

  2. David says:

    Hi Tara – thanks for visiting the blog!

    That’s certainly an unusual problem and I’m afraid I’m at a loss as to how to resolve it. Following the advice given by your supervisor it all works fine for me and the word moves as a whole to the next line complete with normal hyphen. I have no idea why it isn’t working for you.

    Of course simply hitting the return key will also do the trick but that leaves a ‘hidden’ return which would throw the transcription out if the formatting, font, etc. were changed, so they probably wouldn’t find that acceptable either.

    All I can do is suggest you email support at Microsoft and see what they can suggest. If you get a helpful answer I’d love to hear about it!

    I’ll just note in passing that ‘X-ray’ needs a capital ‘X’, but I’m sure that was only different here because of the more casual conventions of boards and blogs!

    Good luck getting it sorted!

  3. Sally says:

    I’m debating how to use this phrase in a Christmas card:

    Just thinking of you makes us oh-so-merry!
    OR
    Just thinking of you makes us oh so merry!

    Please advice which is preferble.

    Thanks.

  4. David says:

    Hi Sally – good question!

    I would advise the second, non-hyphenated option.

    You would use hyphens if the phrase were being used as an adjective: “This oh-so-merry family is thinking of you!” In your version above, however, you are simply intensifying ‘merry’.

    You can see this if you used some different words to do the same thing:

    “Just thinking of you makes us so very merry!”

    Clearly we wouldn’t think of hyphenating that, but doubt creeps into the mind because of ‘oh’, which is a form of exclamation and consequently makes us feel the need for a pause. To overcome that you naturally wonder if hyphenating the whole phrase would solve it but that shouldn’t really be necessary.

    I would have to say the use of ‘oh’ in this way is unusual, so I think it may read a little awkwardly for some people. The adjectival use of this type of construct is more common (e.g. “She was wearing her oh-so-sensible shoes.”) and consequently more straightforward. However, in my opinion the unhyphenated version is the one to go for.

    Have a great Christmas!

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