Module 14, Additional Punctuation, Lesson 4:


The Three Punctuation Marks in the Hyphen and Dash Family
The hyphen -
The en dash
(the width of a capital N, twice the width of a hyphen)
The em dash
(the width of a capital M, three times the width of a hyphen)

In the past, each of these marks was much easier to distinguish on a typewriter than on today's computers. Modern computers generally change two hyphens with no spaces before, after, or between them to an em dash. Different operating systems and word programs have different ways of typing these marks.

Definition: A hyphen is a short dash that breaks words apart or joins them together. A hyphen should not have a space before or after it.

Hyphenated Compound Words

Some compound words require a hyphen. You will often have to look up a compound word in the dictionary to decide whether it is written as one word, two words, or with a hyphen.

We will have a get-together next weekend to celebrate your birthday.
The game started out as an organized game of tag, but it ended up a free-for-all.

Hyphenated Last Names

Some women use a hyphen to join their maiden name (or unmarried name) with their husband's last name instead of taking only their husband's last name. Sometimes a husband and wife keep their own last names and form their children's last names by connecting both last names with a hyphen.

Julia Smith-Jacobson

Hyphenated Adjectives

Use a hyphen to connect two or more words that work together as one adjective before a noun. If the two words come after the noun, they are generally not hyphenated unless they make up a compound word that you can find in the dictionary.

She wore a charcoal-gray rain jacket.
Her rain jacket was charcoal gray.

Suspended Hyphens

Suspended hyphens occur when hyphenated words are written without repeating one part.

I like vanilla-flavored ice cream.
You like vanilla-, chocolate-, and strawberry-flavored ice cream.

Hyphens to Clarify Meaning

Use a hyphen to connect adjectives when the meaning might be unclear.

Teresa preferred the red-embroidered lace dress.
The dress was embroidered with red thread.

Teresa preferred the red embroidered lace dress.
The red lace dress was embroidered.


Use a hyphen with numbers in the following situations:

  • In compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine
    The majority of you scored between eighty-eight and ninety-nine percent on the test.
  • In fractions
    One-fourth of the students in the class have parents from another country.
  • To separate elements of a date (you can also use slashes)
    7-3-86 = July 3, 1986 in the US and March 7, 1986 in most other parts of the world.
  • In game scores
    They won the game 32-31.

Spelling out Words


Hippopotamus is spelled h-i-p-p-o-p-o-t-a-m-u-s.

Dividing Words at the End of a Line

If you are using justified margins, like newspaper columns, a word may start at the end of one line and finish on the next line. When this happens, use a hyphen to divide the word between syllables. Most word programs just wrap the word to the next line without considering where the word's syllable breaks are located. Use a dictionary if you are unsure where to divide a word.

When you write for a newspaper, the margins are generally justified. That is, both margins form straight lines. The computer will auto- matically add extra spaces between some words in order to keep the edges straight. Most word processing programs today will automatically hyphenate words if needed.
Generally, you should divide multi-syllable words between syllables, never leaving only one letter on the previous line or fewer than three letters at the beginning of the next line.

Awkward Spelling

Use a hyphen in some words to distinguish them from similar words or to avoid awkward double or triple letters.

  • Distinguishing two words
    Re-cover the furniture vs. recover from an illness
    Re-creation of an event vs. recreation activities for fun
  • Avoiding double and triple letters

Prefixes and Suffixes

A prefix is attached to the beginning of a word; a suffix is attached to the end of a word. There are many situations in which it's necessary to use a hyphen with a prefix or suffix:

  • With the prefixes all-, co-, ex- (when it means former), great-, and self-, and with the suffix -elect
    All-seeing eye
    Great-grandfather (A great grandfather is a grandfather who is great.)
  • When using numbers and capital letters as prefixes
    25-cent stamp
    12-foot Christmas tree
  • Some prefixes use hyphens only in certain situations.
    antibacterial but anti-American
    preoccupied but pre-1942

Practice What You've Learned

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Insert one or more hyphens in each of the following sentences by clicking the space(s) between the appropriate words, letters, or numbers.