Do you use hyphens and em dashes correctly?


Many people interchangeably use hyphens and dashes. Hyphens are shorter and are used for specific purposes. Dashes set off a thought or are used for emphasis. The most common dash use is an Em Dash which is longer. “I thought to myself — do I really need this?”


Hyphens basically connect two adjectives that modify a noun. They are used when one word does not work on its own, and it pairs it with the next word to make a new word/phrase.  These appear before the noun. E.g.,


A two-story building. (two stories describe the building.)

Well-known author.


The above describes a Compound Adjectives – hyphenate two or more words to modify the noun following it. 


When compound adjectives follow a noun, a hyphen is unnecessary.


The building has two stories. (The noun is building; two stories describe it.)

The author is well known. (well known follows the noun, author.)


However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. You can check a dictionary or style guide for these.


The building design is state-of-the-art.


Sometimes hyphens are used to create new verb phrases or for fun.


Matthew video-gamed through his twenties.

Matthew test-drives every car he likes.


Adverbs, however, do not require hyphens. Adverbs modify verbs, not nouns. 


He is a classically trained pianist. The adverb, classically, describes how he is trained.



Hyphenate spans of time, distance, or number quantities. In Word, select: Insert, Symbols, Special Characters. You will see the en and em dash characters.


(span of time) Young voters were active especially in 2015-2018.

(number quantities) There were about 150-200 people in attendance.

(time) The meeting is held between 1:15-3:30 p.m. 


Happy writing. 

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