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.


  • 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


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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