My FIRST post focused on the COLON and SEMI-COLON. In this SECOND post my concentration is on the use and misuse of the HYPHEN (-) and DASHES (-).

Never Stop

The hyphen ( – ), en dash (is the same width as a letter N)  ( – ), and em dash ( — ) (is the same width as the letter M) look similar but are of different lengths. They also perform different functions.


A short line used to connect the parts of compound words or the parts of a word divided for any purpose.

Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words.

For most writers, the hyphen’s primary function is the formation of certain compound terms. The hyphen is also used for word division, which is briefly explained here.

This little piece of punctuation is becoming less and less used. There are, however, occasions where the hyphen in definitely required.

Such instances in which you will need to use a hyphen include . . .

All words consisting of self- combined with a noun, eg:

  • self-expression                      self-confidence            self-consciousness

Avoid Ambiguity: Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted.

  • The president will speak to small-businessmen.

(Businessmen normally is one word, but without the hyphen we might infer that he was speaking to businessmen who are small.)

In adjectives that have been formed by combining two words, eg:

  • nineteenth-century history         self-paced learning exercises
  • off-the-peg suits                             old-furniture salesman

Take care to use the hyphen only in situations where the hyphenated word is used as an adjective as in the above examples. Contrast these two examples:

  • He was an old-furniture salesman. (The furniture is old)
  • He was an old furniture salesman. (The salesman is old)

We have several verbs in English that consist of a verb and a preposition where a hyphen is used. Have a look at these verbs and the nouns that can be formed as a result:

  • to hold up …     This is a hold-up.
  • to wash up …   Go and do the washing-up.
  • to tell off …       The tutor gave him a good telling-off.

Compound Modifiers: When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb “very” and all adverbs that end in “ly” eg:

  • A first-quarter touchdown.                       A last-minute reprieve.
  • A bluish-green dress.                                A full-time job.
  • A well-known man                                    An easily-remembered rule.
  • A know-it-all attitude                               A very good time.

Good IdeaTHE DASHES (-)

The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period. __ Lewis Thomas

The dash is longer than a hyphen. There are in fact two different dashes: the en-dash is the same width as a letter N, while the em-dash is the same width as the letter M.

The dash can be used to set off parenthetical elements, when those elements themselves contain internal forms of punctuation. Use the em-dash in these situations.

  • All four of them—Bob, Jeffrey, Jason, and Brett—did well in college.

The dash should not be used to set off parenthetical elements when a comma would do just as well. There needs to be a good reason to use the dash.

The em-dash can also be used in direct speech to signal a break in thought or a shift in tone.

  • ‘What on earth can I do -,’ Alan jumped up and ran to the door.
  • ‘I’ve just asked you to – oh what was I telling you?’

The en-dash is used for indicating the space between dates in a chronological range.

  • The Second World War (1939-1945) was one of mankind’s darkest hours.

The dash is used when we’re showing that someone’s name or a word has been omitted, perhaps for legal reasons or issues of taste, eg:

  • Professors ______ and ______ were suspended without pay for their refusal to grade papers.

The dash can also be used to join compound modifiers made up of elements that are themselves either open compounds (frequently two-word proper nouns) or already hyphenated compounds, eg:

  • The Puerto Rican–United States collaboration
  • post-Darwinian–pre-Freudian theorems

Again, Dear Reader, the use of the hyphen and the dashes is not an easy concept to master if you don’t practice using them. Use them in your everyday writing so that they become second nature. When you get to the exam season, it will just be a walk in the park!

Good luck in all your endeavours.

As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!



  1. andrew mutyavaviri says:

    Little did i.know tht there was a dfference between a hyphen nd a dash.have always used same interchangeably.the hyphen is a hard nut to u rightly said with mo practise one can ctually get to grips on how to effectively use e hyphen.

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