Should you hang in there with a hyphen or get dramatic with a dash? Good question, and fortunately there’s an easy way to answer it. Although they look alike, hyphens and dashes are used for very different reasons. Hyphens are joiners; they help words hold hands. Dashes, in contrast, are drama queens that like to push words apart.
But before I get on with explaining where and when to use them, let’s make sure you can spot the difference between a hyphen and a dash. A hyphen is a short black line with no spaces around it-like that. A dash is a slightly longer black line, with spaces around it – like that.
Let’s start with the hyphen which, though smaller than the dash, has a heavier responsibility. The hyphen has three main uses:
01 Hyphens join prefixes
A hyphen is the glue that joins a prefix to a word. Here are some examples:
post-apocalyptic pre-natal co-author re-consider (whether to use a hyphen)
Yes, you may have to reconsider, because the use of a hyphen to join prefixes is becoming less common. More and more words are joined at the hip, not by a hyphen, to make a stand-alone word. (Or a stand alone word. Or even a standalone word.) You can probably think of loads of words that begin with ‘post’, ‘pre’, ’co’ and ‘re’ that don’t have a hyphen.
So, in advising what to do, let’s reflect on what the venerable grammarian Henry Watson Fowler said about hyphens. He pointed out that ‘a hyphen is not an ornament, but is an aid to being understood.’ So, did we re-cover a couch, or recover a couch? Clearly there’s an ambiguity. If we re-cover the couch, we’re giving it some groovy new upholstery and a new lease on life. If we recover it, we’re rescuing it from the hard rubbish pile outside the neighbour’s house. See the difference? A hyphen helps prevent ambiguity.
02 Hyphens form compound words
I could fill all the bandwidth from here to eternity discussing whether to use a hyphen in compound words. But instead I’ll give some guidelines and recommend that you buy a good dictionary.
Compound adjectives (descriptive words)
Rule of thumb – use a hyphen.
up-to-date rules of grammar award-winning novelist six-year-old boy
That seems pretty straightforward, but there are a couple of important exceptions to this rule. The first is no hyphens in compound adjectives when the first word ends in ‘ly’.
friendly looking grizzly bear not friendly-looking grizzly bear
quickly written blog post not quickly-written blog post
The other exception is when the adjective comes after the noun it’s modifying.
Good writers use an up-to-date style guide. not Good writers use a style guide that is up to date.
(If you want to get technical, the adjective after the noun in this example is actually a verb.)
Compound verbs (action words)
Rule of thumb – use a hyphen.
touch-type sight-read blow-dry
There are, however, exceptions. Proofread is one word – for no apparent reason. So do consult a dictionary if you’re not sure.
More exceptions are phrasal verbs, which is a show-off way of saying a verb made up of a main verb and adverb or preposition (small word, usually).
She built up (not built-up) a huge amount of frustration over whether to hyphenate.
Note, however, that we should write:
a built-up area not a built up area.
That’s because in this case ‘built’ and ‘up’ form an adjective.
Compound nouns (things)
Rule of thumb – well, there isn’t one. I’m tempted just to say buy a good dictionary.
Compound nouns can be written as two words, a hyphenated word, or one word.
road block road-block roadblock
block head block-head blockhead
rose bush rose-bush rosebush
I don’t have a wiggly red line under any of these, so I guess they’re all correct (at least according to Microsoft). Historically, as separate nouns start getting used together more and more to describe a changing world, people start to link them with hyphens, and after a while the hyphen disappears altogether. It’s like a romance that becomes an engagement and finally a marriage. This happens quite quickly in English. The comfort for writers, of course, is that you can’t really get these things wrong. Just make sure that you use your hyphens, or not, consistently. But again, check the dictionary for the most common, acceptable usage.
Hyphens with numbers – a special case
This is where the hyphen really comes into its own.
Use a hyphen in a span of dates or numbers:
the 1939-45 war pages 23-32 sections 10-13
An exception is when using the word ‘from’:
the war lasted from 1939 to 1945 not the war lasted from 1939-45
read from page twenty-three to page thirty-two not read from page 23-32
And, as you can see from the example above, you should always use a hyphen when writing compound numbers as words.
Twenty-one eighty-six ninety-nine
03 Hyphens indicate word breaks
That is, when you run out of room to fit a whole word at the end of a line. This is a rare event in the computer age, but if you’re hand-writing a letter and run out of room to finish ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, you need to pop in a hyphen before finishing the word on the next line. It’s a good idea to put the hyphen in a sensible place. So:
is better than
Dashes are easier to understand than hyphens. Essentially, they’re used for dramatic effect. In other words, they make a more emphatic, abrupt break in a sentence than other punctuation marks.
They can be used instead of a pair of commas for emphasis:
She was confused by hyphens – those pesky little word-joiners – until she read today’s blog post.
Or to make a complex sentence that needs lots of commas more readable:
He found making a selection from the myriad punctuation marks available in the English language – commas, semi-colons, dashes, parentheses, colons and ellipses – a cause of acute choice anxiety.
Dashes can replace brackets:
Of the punctuation marks in the English language – all fourteen of them – the dash is the most dramatic.
Dashes can also make jokes:
She stepped gracefully from the limousine – onto a waiting banana skin.
See how the pause creates comedy?
So don’t stress over hyphens and dashes. If you remember the rules of thumb for compound words and get yourself a good dictionary, you’re half way there (or do I mean half-way?). Wherever you put your hyphens, placing them consistently is the key to feeling confident.
When in doubt, just ask your editor. ;)