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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Hyphens and Dashes

“A well-placed hyphen can lend writing c-l-a-r-i-t-y”

now your dashes from your hyphens”

“Compounds cause considerable confusion”

Also see dashes and spelling compound words with or without hyphens.


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A well-placed hyphen can lend writing

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the hyphen.

Compared to the graceful and elegant semicolon, for example, the humble hyphen offers little to arouse the imagination. With a semicolon a writer can suggest association between two sentences, even evoke a sense of cause and consequence, as in this pairing: "The committee will convene next week; we will make a decision then."

With a hyphen a writer can – well, a writer can attach a prefix to a proper noun, as in "post-Sputnik," or indicate the spelling of a word, as in "b-o-r-i-n-g."

The semicolon is a fine quill drawing that separates and connects two subtly related thoughts; the hyphen is a grease monkey that joins the working parts of a two- or three-part compound.

Even its name, "hi-fen," sounds pedestrian. It rhymes with Hymen, the god of marriage in Greek mythology, and its function is mechanical and starkly utilitarian.

To make matters worse, the hyphen is often misused. Commonly confused with its longer cousin, the dash, the hyphen is only this long: -. The dash is this long: –.

Whoever invented the typewriter keyboard in the 19th century neglected to assign a key to the dash, so the modern keyboardist must make up for the omission by creating a dash by typing two hyphens. (An alternative is to use the software-produced dash, which typically can be accessed through a function key.)

Despite its lowly nature and its ignominious misuse, the hyphen does have redeeming traits. Its most noble use is to serve as a marker within a unit modifier or compound adjective.

Without it, the following sentence is confusing: "Before Susan can write her second year end report, she must complete her first year end report." Compare: "Before Susan can write her second year-end report, she must complete her first year-end report."

Use a hyphen to

1. Form a unit modifier or a compound adjective when the unit precedes the word modified, as in "up-to-date information" (but "information that is up to date")

2. Form a compound adjective with the words "well" and "ill," as in "a well-liked manager" and "an ill-conceived idea"

3. Form a letter or number modifier, as in "a 10-cent haircut" and "a A-frame cabin"

4. Avoid confusion with certain words and modifiers, such as "re-creation" (not "recreation") and "re-sent" (not "resent").

Do not use a hyphen to

1. Form a two-word modifier when the first element is a comparative or superlative, as in "higher paid managers" or "better skilled employees"

2. Mark an adverbial "-ly" phrase, as in "unusually acute observations" and "severely depressed markets"

3. Mark a foreign phrase, as in "a priori knowledge" or "bona fide quality"

4. Form a compound containing a letter or a numeral as its second element, as in "grade A eggs" or "section 1 codes."

Unlike the semicolon, the hyphen has no impact on the rhythm and flow of a sentence; it offers no reflective pause, no grace or beauty.

The hyphen is, however, a useful visual aid. If for no other reason than your sense of decency, show it some respect.



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Know your dashes from your hyphens

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between a dash and a hyphen is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Yet many writers confuse the two punctuation marks.

The mighty dash (–) is charged with energy. It produces a sudden jolt of emphasis, an abrupt pause that draws a dramatic halt to the rhythm and flow of a sentence.

The lowly hyphen (-) is a nondescript mark. Intended for the eye rather than the ear, it functions without personality, style, or rhythmic impact.

The confusion might result from the dash never having been given its rightful place on the keyboard. When the typewriter was invented in the 19th century, the dash was omitted, perhaps because it could be replicated by typing two hyphens, like this: --.

Most word-processing programs make up for this omission by automatically joining two separate hyphens into a solid dash. Some software programs also elongate a hyphen into a dash when a space appears before and after the hyphen.

There are actually two types of dashes: em dashes and en dashes. As their names imply, em dashes and en dashes were at one time the length of the letters m and n. This distinction provided a handy way for letterpress operators like Benjamin Franklin to know if he had picked up the right dash and, after a page was printed, to return it to its appropriate box in his type case.

En dashes, which are shorter than em dashes and longer than hyphens, are used to mark intervals, as in continuing times ("The meeting is scheduled for 8-9 a.m.") and in continuing dates ("The years 1994-99 were a period of great economic prosperity").

But now that you know about en dashes, forget about them. (Whew!) They are used almost exclusively in published materials. When using word processors, you and I use hyphens in place of en dashes.

So our concern is using hyphens correctly and using em dashes – generally referred to simply as dashes – to good effect. Here’s how:

Use hyphens both to divide and to connect. More specifically, use hyphens between the components of

1. Divided words, as in im-pov-er-ish

2. Compound names, as in Richards-Wilbers

3. Compound nouns, as in shrink-wrap

4. Compound verbs, as in spot-check

5. Compound adjectives – also called "unit modifiers" – when they precede the word modified, as in up-to-date information (but This information is up to date)

6. Intervals (in word-processed text), as in 2000-03.

Use dashes to indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure. More specifically, use dashes to

1. Set off an interruption, as when William Strunk and E. B. White wrote, "His first thought on getting out of bed – if he had any thought at all – was to get back in again."

2. Set off a mid-sentence phrase that contains a series of items separated by commas, as in "Attending to the five elements of effective writing – purpose, organization, support, expression, and correctness – will make you a better writer."

3. Mark the end of a long summary, as when Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Our intelligence, our wit, our cleverness, our unique personalities – all are simultaneously ‘our own’ possessions and the world’s."

4. Mark the beginning of a long summary, as in "She has many qualities – qualities such as integrity, candor, commitment, and genuine concern for others."

5. Mark an author’s name after a quotation, as in "‘Have dash. Will travel.’ – Anonymous."



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Compounds cause considerable confusion

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Nowhere (or should that be "no where"?) is English more chaotic than in its seemingly arbitrary spelling of compound words and phrases.

Take deadline, for example. Originally spelled dead line, then dead-line, now deadline, the term was first used during the Civil War in reference to a line drawn 10 feet within the walls of a Confederate stockade. As a security measure, the Union prisoners of war were told if they crossed the line they would be shot dead; thus, the name.

Unfortunately, solid compounds in general have not followed such a tidy evolutionary path. They are spelled variously as separate words, hyphenated compounds, and solid compounds – and many are still changing.

William Sabin sums it up neatly in The Gregg Reference Manual: "Compound nouns follow no regular pattern." Compare, for example, check mark, check-in, checklist; double take, double-dipper, doubleheader; and place mat, place-name, placeholder.

Your spelling-checker is of little help, so the safest way to deal with this mess is to consult a dictionary. I recommend you own not only a big hardback but also a smaller paperback. Recycle the paperback every five years to keep abreast of vanishing hyphens in words such as nontraditional and soon-to-vanish hyphens in terms such as e-mail, log-in, and on-line.

Leading the evolutionary trend to solid compounds are the people who use the terms most frequently. It was the bankers, for example, who first spelled bankcard as one word, and the scientists and environmentalists who first closed the gap in groundwater. A friend of mine grew up working in her family's restaurant. It wasn't until she went to college that she realized togo is still spelled as two words.

If you have noticed that our confusion often involves prepositions, you're on to (not onto) something. We use prepositions to inflect verbs: We hang up the phone and hang out with the crowd. And we press verb/preposition combinations into service as nouns: We suffer from hang-ups and hangovers with other hangers-on at our hangout.

According to Bill Bryson and others, we Americans first started getting carried away with prepositions in the 19th century ("our Elizabethan age"), when countless expressions such as to stay put and to get away with became popular.

Accustomed as we now are to seeing solid and hyphenated compounds, we must take care to spell verb phrases with spaces: We check out our items at the checkout, and we check in at the check-in. In short, we must be clear about how we are using words, and spell them accordingly.

Even then, however, we're not home free (or is that home-free?). Certain words, such as database, paperwork, and workforce, can be spelled either as solid compounds or as spaced words. Other words, such as frontrunner and fundraiser, can be spelled either as solid or hyphenated compounds. Decision-making and problem-solving are listed as hyphenated compounds by some dictionaries but as spaced words by Sabin. Vice president, once spelled with a hyphen, is now without. And, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, lifestyle can be spelled life style, life-style, or lifestyle – depending on what, I wonder, your mood?

I can't hope to make sense of all this, but it helps to think in terms of categories such as solid compounds: anytime, cannot, percent; hyphenated compounds: absent-minded, well-being, year-end; compounds that take hyphens when they precede the words they modify: "We work day to day and enjoy our day-to-day routine"; and indefinite pronouns that become two words when used to single out a member of a group: "Anyone can do it, including any one of you."

For a list of nearly 700 words organized by category, see "Spelling compound words with or without hyphens" on my website. You're welcome to print a copy for reference.




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