How to use hyphens and dashes to look smart

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 9 Comments

A lot of smart people worry about how to use hyphens and dashes. Sadly, their insecurity makes them nervous about writing. I’d say 60%-80% of my college students need help with this issue. But once they learn the basics, they find such freedom in expressing themselves.

So let’s figure out how to use hyphens and dashes. It’s time to boost your writing confidence. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll see that hyphens and dashes are really your friends. They’re here to capture your personality and mood. They bring nuance and style to your writing.

The big problem in explaining how to use hyphens and dashes is that grammar and punctuation terrify many of us. For that reason, we’ll keep this conversation very, very simple and clear.

What are hyphens and dashes?

The first thing to understand is this: We’re talking about two types of little black lines. But they are not twins. Make the hyphen a short line. The dash should always be a longer line. To make a dash when I’m typing, I hit the hyphen key twice. Then, I hit “return,” which instantly snaps the two hyphens together into a longer line.

The short hyphen glues together single words into phrase:

  • This orange-colored shirt is my favorite.
  • That final exam was super-tricky.

The dash, which is the longer black line, handles word groupings. The dash usually connects two phrases or sentences — and does it with a dash of style.

  • This shirt is my favorite — so please don’t lose it.

If this makes sense, then you understand the basics of how to use hyphens and dashes.

Now, let’s play with these two little lines. By the time we’re done, you’ll really know how to use hyphens and dashes.

Typical ways to use hyphens

Since we’re avoiding the trauma of grammar talk, we will avoid discussing how hyphens create compound words. And, that these compound words are commonly used as adjectives that describe nouns. <– Only read this if you care about grammar.

Up first — the hyphen. Use it when you need a few words to describe something. By attaching words together, the hyphen functions like glue that creates a clear description for readers. The presence of the little hyphen saves the reader from visual confusion:

  • Do: My dessert-loving cousin ate the entire cake. 
  • Don’t: My dessert loving cousin ate the entire cake. 

You can even use the hyphen to create a long description for someone or something:

  • Do: He has such a happy-go-lucky personality.  
  • Don’t: He has such a happy go lucky personality.   

If you want to be funny, fun, or ironic, you can go even longer:

  • Do: We had one of those are-we-breaking-up-or-staying-together conversations.  
  • Don’t: We had one of those are we breaking up or staying together conversations.  

Tricky hyphens

Here’s a common trick situation. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you yet, just remember: If the age of someone or something goes in front, use hyphens. If the age goes after the thing you’re describing, no hyphens. Like this:

  • Do: My 13-year-old dog is still the love of my life.   
  • Don’t: My 13 year old dog is still the love of my life.   

Then, here’s what to do when the age follows the someone or something:

  • Do: My dog is 13 years old. 
  • Don’t: My dog is 13-years-old. 

When you’re ready to get fancy, there’s a a special hyphen situation to try. I call it the dangling hyphen. Most of the time, the hyphen sits snug between two words. But if the hyphen situation involves repeating certain words, you let it dangle. This is the only time I allow these dangling hyphens in my classes.

Let’s say you’re writing about two-year colleges, which are called community colleges, and four-year-colleges. Think how boring boring your writing would be if you kept using those two phrases over and over. So you can do this:

  • Do: Are you considering a two- or  four-year college?
  • Do: I can’t decide between the diamond- or ruby-studded ring. 

What is a dash? 

We have three types of dashes. The dash which is just the short little black line; the en-dash, which is a little longer; and the em-dash, which is what we’re talking about here. But this is too complicated for even me. Let’s keep things simple.  <– Only read this is you’re passionate about dashes. Otherwise, it might confuse you.

The dash is all about your self-expression as a writer, your feelings at the moment. The dash is emotional. Big personality! If you hate dashes, you can actually avoid them. More on that later — after you’ve actually met the dash and hopefully, fallen in love with its charms.

Avoid dash disaster

Poor dash. Even college students and smart people wonder what to do with it. Look carefully at how this helpful, little line is misused and abused:

  • Don’t: Let me know your plans- I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 
  • Another don’t: Let me know your plans– I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 
  • Yet another don’t: Let me know your plans-I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 

How to present the dash

If you use the big-personality dash, I suggest leaving a space on either side of it. But that’s my journalism bias.

Dashes float mid-air in news-y outlets — everything from The New York Times, CNN and National Public Radio to and

Now that you know about the dash, look more closely at what you’re reading both on paper and online. You might begin to notice that books and magazines do the dash differently–like this. No space around the dash.

How to actually use the dash

A dash can tie together two sentences:

  • Do: Let me know your plans — I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 
  • Or, do: Let me know your plans–I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 

You can also use the dash to latch a phrase — which, like this phrase you’re reading now, is not a full sentence — onto a full sentence. Here’s an example:

  • Do: I wanted to save the leftover salad for tomorrow’s lunch — then changed my mind and ate it.  
  • Or, do: I wanted to save the leftover salad for tomorrow’s lunch — then changed my mind and ate it.  
  • But don’t: I wanted to save the leftover salad for tomorrow’s lunch-then changed my mind and ate it.

Notice how using the dash this way saves you from endlessly repeating “I, I, I:”

  • Don’t:  I wanted to save the leftover salad for tomorrow’s lunch — then I changed my mind and ate it.

If you hate dashes

And if you hate dashes, here are other punctuation options:

  • Let me know your plans. I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 
  • Let me know your plans; I’m ready to buy the tickets now.
  • Let me know your plans, I’m ready to buy the tickets now. 

Run wild. Express yourself.

Congratulations! If you made it through this blog post, then you know how to use hyphens and dashes. Enjoy looking sharp. It will feel good.


Comments 9

  1. Hi Betty, the dash is properly called an em dash, and I never “leave air” on either side–it should be closed up, as I have learned to practice. As you write on your computer, you make the em dash by simply hitting Enter after you have typed in the double hyphen (does not work on a phone).

    1. Post

      Amy, thanks for jumping in. Actually, we have three kinds of dashes — which I explain in the crossed-out text under the dash section. I crossed it out on purpose because my hunch is, if I explained all that, the dash-challenged writers would freak out and disappear. :)

      I am focusing on the basic dash because it’s what’s used in journalism. Go to any news website and the norm are dashes with spaces on either side. Since everyone surfs the web for news, it’s the dash that most people I’ve taught try to reach for intuitively. They just get confused about when to use it.

      The em-dash is standard for magazines and books. The en-dash is in-between length. And is used like this: 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Since I don’t have an en-dash on my keyboard, I’m just using a regular hyphen for that.

      Thanks to this comment from you, I’ve just added little notes to the crossed-out sections of my post. Maybe that will make things a little clearly. You’re the best, Amy! Always great to hear from you. xo

  2. P.s. There is an en dash, too, which is what you need when you are trying to write: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, though I don’t know how to make an en dash on the computer!

    1. Post
    1. Post
  3. Post
  4. Thank you for all the things you inadvertently teach us about ourselves. You must be one hell of a writing teacher. You certainly are a gifted and talented artist. I’d like to see more of your oils. I just can’t really appreciate abstract art. I’ve tried. I love the first one you posted that looks like a landscape with dark trees–probably a winter landscape, lol. Did I use that dash correctly????

    I am saving this blog entry to my archives because I want to explore all the rest of the stuff you included as well when I am more use to this new computer and my newer version of email. I will be back in touch with you via snail mail during October. I have something I want to send you. I can’t make use of your coaching services for now but maybe at a later date. Thank you again for all the wisdom you have helped me to inadvertently find and I hope store. This is not the end of reading your blog just signing off for now.

  5. I know I did two dashes which should form a long dash instead of a hyphen so it’s the computer doing it too!!!! So, was I correct if I did type to do a dash and continue the sentence?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *