The En Dash: When and How to Use It Image

Hyphens are frequently confused with dashes (like the em dash or en dash), and many writers struggle with remembering how to use them properly.

Misuse of the hyphen (or any other punctuation mark) may seem like a minor mistake, but it can be a glaring error and even a turn-off to many readers.

Learn the proper uses of the hyphen so you can write confidently and error-free.

What Is A Hyphen?

The hyphen (-) is a punctuation mark that is used to connect words to show that they have a combined meaning. Hyphens can also be used to indicate the division and continuation of a word that is cut off at the end of a line.

The hyphen is not a dash, and cannot be substituted by or for one. Em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens all have distinct differences and uses.

It is also important to note that hyphens should never be surrounded by spaces.

When to Use a Hyphen

There are several cases in which hyphens are used, but each case has its own specific rules that you should be aware of.

With Compound Modifiers

A compound modifier is a set of two or more words that act together as a single adjective.

The two words should be joined by a hyphen only when they are placed before nouns.

For example:

No one was a fan of Teresa’s bone-dry turkey last Thanksgiving.

In the sentence above, “bone-dry” is a compound modifier, and “turkey” is the noun it describes.

If the noun were placed before the words “bone-dry,” as in the example below, the hyphen would not be necessary:

Last year Teresa’s turkey came out bone dry.

More examples:

Is there a pet-friendly hotel nearby?

The brightly-lit room lifted her spirits.

The ice-cold water was just what they needed on that sweltering day.

With Present Participles

If you combine a noun or adjective with a present participle (verbs ending in -ing), a hyphen is needed to make the connected meaning more clear.

However, as in the example above, the hyphen is only necessary when the modifier comes before the noun being described.

For example:

The good-looking groom was about to be late for his wedding.

The hyphen is not needed if the sentence is written, “The groom was good looking and running late for his wedding.”

More examples:

The smooth-talking salesman had found his next victim.

The fast-acting medication had saved her life.

With Past Participles

Compound modifiers that contain past participles (verbs that typically end in -ed) follow the same rules as those with present participles.

For example:

Grass-fed beef is usually more expensive in supermarkets.

The hyphen is not needed if the sentence is re-written, “Most beef found in supermarkets is not grass fed.”

More examples:

The well-dressed woman made her way to the podium.

My solar-powered calculator helped me through my calculus exam.

With Compound Words

Hyphenated compound words contain hyphens between them, but many have been converted to closed compounds over time (like the word “teenager.”)

If you’re unsure about whether a compound is hyphenated or closed, check with a recently updated dictionary.

Common hyphenated compound words include:

  • Mother-in-law
  • Seven-year-old
  • Six-pack
  • Editor-in-chief
  • Long-term

With Numbers

When spelled out, numbers 21–99 must be hyphenated.

For example:

  • Twenty-one
  • Thirty-two
  • Eighty-seven
  • Ninety-nine

With Prefixes

When “ex,” “self,” and “all” are used as prefixes, hyphens must be used to connect the prefix with the main word.

For example:

Her ex-husband is getting remarried this summer.

We are tired of self-serving politicians.

Most religions describe God as all-knowing.

Learn When and How to Use Hyphens

Learning the appropriate uses of hyphens will make your writing more professional and effective.

Make sure you are familiar with the difference between hyphens and dashes so you can avoid some of the most common grammar mistakes.

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