The Hyphen

Punctuation Marks

Part 10

The Hyphen

What is a hyphen? When should a hyphen be used? Where should hyphens be inserted into a sentence? These are a few of the questions this workshop will answer. (Please see the punctuation chart in our Introduction to Punctuation Workshop).


The hyphen (-) is a mark that joins words or parts of words and is placed directly between letters and with no spaces. The hyphen looks similar to an n dash (N) or em dash (M), but the hyphen is shorter. The hyphen has a host of uses, some of which are still disagreed upon even amongst the highest of literary scholars.

Let’s start with the many hyphen uses and examples:

Common Uses

Use 1 – Use a hyphen when spelling out compound numbers or fractions

• fifty-six, two-thirds

Use 2 – Use a hyphen after prefixes and before suffixes

• Always after prefixes all-, ex-, and self-
all-inclusive, ex-president, self-righteous

• Always before the suffix -elect.

Use 3 – To form a compound adjective before a noun

• a one-way street, chocolate-covered pecans, well-known musician

Use 4 – Use a hyphen to divide words at the end of a line, if necessary.

Rules of this use:

• Only break between syllables.

• Never divide a single-syllable word.

Correct: re-com-men-ded

Incorrect: se-ems, d-og

• Do not divide a word between syllables if only one letter remains alone or if only two letters would then begin a line.

Correct: Com-pli-cate, op-po-site

Incorrect: c-ats, ru-les

• Always divide an already hyphenated compound word at the hyphen.

Correct: The self- [line break] righteous person bragged all day.

Incorrect: The self-right- [line break] eous person bragged all day.

Less Common Uses

Use A – Use hyphens to spell out a word letter by letter


c-r-e-a-t-e OR f-o-o-d

Use B – Use a hyphen to avoid awkward double vowels


• re-elect [instead of reelect]
• pre-eminent [instead of preeminent]

Use C – Use a hyphen to avoid confusion of words with dual meanings


• re-sign the document [instead of resign the document]

• re-collect the marbles [instead of recollect—as in memory— the marbles]

Use D – Use to indicate stammering in dialogue


• “I s-s-so cold out t-t-today.”

Use E – Use a hyphen to form original compound verbs or phrases with creative license


• He always has this know-it-all attitude. OR Mr. always-late-to-class.

Use F – Use a hyphen in family relations


• son-in-law, great-grandfather

Use G – Use a suspended hyphen when listing multiple prefixes intended for the same root word.


• light-, middle- and heavyweight


• The Dash:

About: The dash (—) is a mark of punctuation used to set off a word or phrase after an independent clause or a parenthetical remark (words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence).

Note: As William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White explained in The Elements of Style: “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

Types of Dashes

• The Em Dash and En Dash

About: The em dash—also called the “long dash,” according to Oxford Online Dictionaries—and the en dash, which doesn’t have another name but falls between the hyphen and em dash in terms of length.

The en dash is so named because it’s approximately the equivalent width of the uppercase letter N and the em dash is roughly the width of an uppercase M.

Examples and Uses:

En Dash

• She works from 8 a.m.–5 p.m.

• Items of equal weight (test–retest, male–female, the Chicago–London flight)

• Page ranges (in references, “…Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 718–729”)

Em Dash

• To signal an abrupt change.

• To set off a series within a phrase.

• Before attribution to an author or composer in some formats.

• After datelines.

• To start lists.

• “Copper Lincoln cents—pale zinc-coated steel for a year in the war—figure in my earliest impressions of money.”

—John Updike, “A Sense of Change,” The New Yorker, April 26, 1999

Visual Difference

•Hyphen –
•En Dash –
• Em Dash —
• — – –

Writing Software Auto-Hyphenation:

When typing longer form writing using a justified alignment or wrapped writing, commonly used for newspapers or online blogs, one’s writing software will likely automatically hyphenate words at the end of a sentence. This is an extremely useful setting. Consider the columns of text below:

This is a text with lots of long words in as a sort of experimentation to demonstrate how automated hyphenation works.

You need words like antidisestablishmentarianism and other such humongous examples of massively long words in order to demonstrate this – it’s also useful to exemplify it using a column width rather than the alternative display presentation of a full-page width.

Using short words will result in the auto-hyphenation setting not kicking in because shorter words can more seamlessly fill a line. It’s usually longer words that enlist the hyphen. Remember, if words are only one syllable, then they cannot be hyphenated at all.Another important note: Hyphens are only used when necessary. It is much more likely that you will use a hyphen in a compound number (i.e, twenty-seven).

This concludes the hyphen workshop. Please re-read the information contained in this workshop before completing the hyphen worksheet.

After you have re-read the information in this workshop, test your knowledge on the hyphen punctuation mark. Please complete The Hyphen Worksheet. You’ll find it on our website. At the top of the page, just click on the menu section and then select Worksheets.

If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the Leave a Reply/Leave a Comment section below. A teaching staff member will provide helpful feedback to any question related to this workshop.

We hope you enjoyed this workshop!

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