February 4, 2017

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.