Angela’s ABCs Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens and Dashes

A hyphen joins two or more words together (mother-in-law, able-bodied) while a dash is used for parenthetical statements (He was – as far as I could see – completely drunk).

On a modern keyboard, the hyphen key is at the top between 0 and =

In Microsoft Word, a dash is formed in your text by keying a space, then a hyphen, then another space. When you finish the next word, the hyphen will convert into a dash.

If you want a dash without spaces, you can find it in the ‘Symbols’ section on the ‘Insert’ task bar.

Hyphens:

  • In some cases a hyphen avoids ambiguity:
    • She is thinking of re-covering her chair (to put a new cover on it)
    • She would like to recover her chair (to get it back from someone who has borrowed it)
    • They dived into a deep blue lake (the lake was deep and blue)
    • They dived into a deep-blue lake ( we learn about the lake’s colour, but not its depth)
  • Use a hyphen with compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
  • In written fractions put a hyphen between the two parts: two-fifths, three-tenths
  • Use a hyphen when the number forms part of an adjectival compound:
    • England has a 35-hour working week.
    • Winston Churchill was a great twentieth-century politician.
  • Use a hyphen in ranges of figures: 33-70, 106-295
  • Prefixes take a hyphen: self-employed, anti-establishment, non-churchgoer; unless the prefix has been absorbed into the word through usage: coordination, cooperation, reshuffle.
  • If two or more words precede and describe a noun, they often take a hyphen: full-time employee, on-the-job training, up-to-date timetable. But if they come after the noun, a hyphen is not usually used: Her job is full time now. She’s had a great deal of training on the job. This timetable is up to date.
  • Many words that have been hyphenated drop the hyphen and become single words: e-mail >email, on-line > online, now-a-days > nowadays.

If you are in any doubt, it’s always a good idea to consult a recent dictionary, because language changes all the time. There are several good online dictionaries with English, rather than American, usage, e.g. Oxford English Dictionary at www.oed.com.

Dashes

Dashes with spaces round them

  • Use dashes in a pair, in place of round brackets or commas, surrounded by spaces:
    • It was – if my memory serves – the finest example of its kind.
    • The church – which was built in the seventeenth century – had all the lead stolen from its roof.
  • Use singly with spaces either side to link two parts of a sentence, in place of a colon:
    • The plane was delayed – we nearly missed our connecting flight.

Author’s note: I am not fond of dashes used in the above two ways, and I think they are best kept for informal writing. I would rather use commas or brackets in the first example, and a conjunction or colon in the second, as I think these are better stylistically.

 Dashes without spaces

  • You can use a dash to link ranges of numbers, with no spaces either side:
    • The salaries of the bank employees, ranging from £500,000–£900,000, were thought to be excessive.
    • The pink and glittery clothes were clearly aimed at the 10–14 age range.
  • You can use a dash between names of joint authors/creators/performers etc. to distinguish from hyphenated names of a single person
    • Lennon–McCartney compositions
    • Lloyd-Webber‒Rice musicals
    • Simon‒Garfunkel concerts
  • You can use a dash to join words that have equal importance in phrases such as Conservative–Liberal coalition, cost–benefit analysis, on–off switch, where it stands for the word ‘and’.

Author’s note: In all the above three cases you can find the dash symbol in your ‘Symbols’ section on the ‘Insert’ task bar. I think many people, in practice, use a hyphen instead.

This post is dedicated to my daughter, Kate, who writes with warmth and vivacity and lots of dashes.

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