Hyphens and dashes


Use sparingly.

Oh, great, you think to yourself. Punctuation. Fascinating stuff. Who cares?

Well, um, duh, I do. And as long as I’m alive, I will be beating you over the head with my Strunk & White. Okay?

This article was inspired by a friend of mine who recently made the pronouncement that comma usage in our modern age is kind of up for grabs. It’s a Ted Nugent free-for-all. Sprinkle those commas like Bac-Os all over your prose. All paths lead to punctuational correctness!

You can well imagine how good old Conan feels about this kind of anarchistic talk. Hives. Shallow breathing. Cold, sweaty palms. But lucky for my friend (who shall remain nameless, although her initials are…Judy), Conan is basically a peaceful person who gave up hand-to-hand combat years ago. I will, however, do whatever is necessary to defend the honor of correct punctuation, up to and including this article that should disabuse you of the notion that hyphens and dashes are interchangeable.

All right. General short course on hyphens and dashes: hyphens connect and dashes separate. Dig it. Visualize it. Internalize it. Dashes are long horizontal punctuation marks, while hyphens are the itty-bitty ones (like the one in itty-bitty) that join compound nouns or compound adjectives that modify nouns. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Right:

president-elect

mother-in-law

master-at-arms

five-year-old

Wrong:

post-office

real-estate

full-moon

half-sister

attorney-general

Examples of hyphenated compound adjectives and the nouns they modify:

small-business owners

bite-sized pieces

can-do attitude

five-minute vacation

Often you can tell which two-word combos need a hyphen. For instance, small business owners could mean two different things sans hyphen. It could mean people who own small businesses…or it could mean small people who own businesses.

Where was I? Oh, right. Compound words can be tricky. Unfortunately, the best advice I can offer is to look them up in the dictionary to ensure you’re hyphenating properly. But Conan, you sigh, why are some hyphenated and not others, and who decided? Beats me. Just look it up and quit your whining.

Here’s a fun little quirk to add to your confusion: no hyphen is needed after a modifier that ends in “ly.”

Wrong: creatively-designed materials

Right: creatively designed materials

And now for dashes. In general, use dashes:

  • in place of a colon before a list at the end of a sentence.

The triumvirate of power includes three entities—the queen, the Vatican and Colonel Sanders with those wee, beady eyes.

  • on both sides of parenthetical or additional information in the middle of a sentence, instead of parentheses or commas.

Wrong: Fred, who couldn’t pour water out of a boot even if the instructions were on the heel—won the trivia contest last night.

Wrong: Fred—who couldn’t pour water out of a boot even if the instructions were on the heel, won the trivia contest last night.

Right: Fred—who couldn’t pour water out of a boot even if the instructions were on the heel—won the trivia contest last night.

  • on both sides of parenthetical or additional information when the information contains commas.

Wrong: Ginger grabbed only three things—her feather boa, Mr. Howell’s bassoon and an autographed photo of Milli Vanilli, before she stormed out of her hut.

Right: Ginger grabbed only three things—her feather boa, Mr. Howell’s bassoon and an autographed photo of Milli Vanilli—before she stormed out of her hut.

These last two are great examples of parenthetical information. How to tell if it’s parenthetical? If you can lift it out and the sentence still makes sense, it’s parenthetical:

Fred won the trivia contest last night.

Ginger grabbed only three things before she stormed out of her hut.

Here’s a little bonus for you. There is great debate about whether to put spaces around dashes. As you’ll note from reading a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction books, some publishers and editors prefer the spaces, and some don’t.

But Conan, you say. Why are you so hardcore on the subject of comma usage but not about this?

Glad you asked. Whether or not spaces exist before and after dashes does not alter the meaning of the sentence or render it incorrect. But incorrect comma placement can do either or both. So what we have here is a question of personal choice. But remember that consistency is key, so pick one option, stick with it and don’t apologize for it.

In other words, be like Neil Young. When an interviewer asked why he plays so many one-note guitar solos, Neil said, “That’s just my style, man.”

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