How to Use Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens and dashes are often seen as impossible, and their rules are fairly wide-reaching. This is a grammar guide to using them.

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There are three different types of dash that you’ll see in writing; they also have very different uses.

Em Dash

An em dash, the most simple and straightforward, is used in very similar circumstances to a comma. The first instance is when you want to make a relevant point but the sentence around it makes sense on its own.

There were a lot of letters—I used to be a postman—on the table.

You don’t put spaces on either side of the em dash and you can use them when other type of break in a sentence occurs where you’d usually use a comma, colon or semicolon.

I went to the shop yesterday—it was a bit boring.

En Dash

An en dash is smaller than an em dash but bigger than a hyphen. This one is used when you want to describe a range of something.

It was around 100–200BC. You can find what you’re looking for on pages 22–24.

Hyphen

Hyphens are a little more complicated. The first use is very simple so we’ll get that out of the way now. Hyphens are used to split a word apart when it runs onto a new line.

Pharma-
cy.

You shouldn’t add these in yourself. Your word processor will decide if words should be broken apart and hyphenated or not so leave it to the computer.

The second use of a hyphen is to merge words together that don’t belong together and that don’t follow the other rules. If you are writing a phrase that is being used a single word then you can merge them with hyphens.

He was a good-for-nothing no-good layabout.

This example works with or without hyphens. It’s down, largely, to your intention. If you wanted it to be read as one word then you could add more hyphens, if you want it to be read differently then you don’t need any.

The third use of a hyphen is add a prefix to another word.

Re-cover (to cover something again)

Co-own

Pre-Renaissance.

As language evolves, however, these types of words are becoming less common as the hyphen is being dropped more frequently than it used to be. They are still used and sometimes they are very important in these types of words for clarity. Recover is a very good example of that. Recover and re-cover mean very different things and context won’t always make it clear.

I would like to recover my car that I recovered yesterday.

Without the hyphen it doesn’t make any sense. The hyphen adds clarity.

I would like to re-cover my car that I recovered yesterday.

The fourth and final use of a hyphen is the most complex and it’s to do with compound words.

Compound adjectives are made up of a noun and an adjective, a noun and a participle or an adjective and a participle. (A participle is a verb that is being used as an adjective or a noun, such as burnt toast. The verb to burn is being used to describe the toast, not as an action.)

Noun and adjective: carbon-neutral

Noun and participle: user-generated

Adjective and participle: good-looking

If you are making a compound adjective with the word well and a participle or phrase then you need to use a hyphen if the word comes before the noun, but not if it comes after the noun.

Well-known brands of beverage.

The brand of this beverage is well known.

When describing ages, it’s important for clarity to use hyphens appropriately.

300 year old trees.

300-year-old trees.

The first could mean that there are a lot of year old trees or that there are some old trees. The second is very clear what is being said.

Compound verbs are formed when two nouns are made into a verb. This requires a hyphen.

I ice-skate at an ice skate.

Phrasal verbs don’t need a hyphen if you are still using it as a verb. If, however, you turn it into a noun then it requires a hyphen. A phrasal verb is a verb and a preposition or adverb together.

I will continue to build up my savings.

That was quite a build-up, wasn’t it?

Compound nouns are when you put two nouns together. This one largely boils down to personal choice these days. As long as it’s clear what you mean, and you are consistent with it, you can use it as one word, two words or hyphened.

Chatroom.

Chat room.

Chat-room.

All three are technically correct. Again, as long as you are consistent in your usage (don’t use chat room in one section and then chat-room in another), then you can pick which ever you like.

 

How you actually physically make the three different lines on a word processor will vary depending on what you are using. However, with Microsoft Word you make the three different ones like this:

Em Dash

Put two hyphens between two words with no spaces Word should automatically change it.

Word--word

Word—word

En Dash

Put a single hyphen with spaces around it. Word should automatically change it.

Word - word

Word—word

Hyphen

Press the hyphen/minus key once with no space around it.

Word-word

Word will automatically recognise what you are trying to do, as will most other word processors.

 

Hyphens and dashes are a tricky thing to get your head around and some word processors are not fantastic and picking up when you should and shouldn’t use them. Sometimes it will tell you and it will be accurate, other times it won’t pick up where one should be so you can’t rely on spell check to learn hyphens and dashes. Practice until it becomes second nature when to use one and when not to.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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