Hyphens and Dashes Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 23, 2011

Hyphens and Dashes

Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

RITA MAE BROWN (1944–    )


In this lesson, you will learn how hyphens and dashes help you divide, join, interrupt, and emphasize your words and phrases. These small but powerful punctuation marks can make a bold impact on the messages you are conveying to your audience.

Though they may look very similar, hyphens and dashes do two completely different things in writing. Depending on their usage in a sentence, hyphens can either divide or join, and dashes can either interrupt or emphasize. Learning the difference is easy, as is using them correctly in your writing. Let's see how.


You can use hyphens in many ways: to divide a word at the end of a line, to join numbers and some compound words, and to attach prefixes to others words.

When used to divide a word at the end of a line of writing, the hyphen is placed in a very specific spot—at any of the syllable breaks in the word or between any double consonants of a word. (Note that one-syllable words, like brick, swim, or knife, cannot be divided or hyphenated.)




All words have one or more syllables—individual spoken units. To find the number of syllable breaks in a word, you can tap your finger on the table or your lap, or clap your hand, for each spoken unit of the word. For example, take the word bird. When you say bird, you can tap or clap for only one syllable. Now let's try the word refrigerator. Tap as you say each syllable: re (tap) frig (tap) er (tap) a (tap) tor (tap). This word has five syllables: re-frig-er-a-tor. You can hyphenate the word at any of the four syllable breaks.





Hyphens are also used to link prefixes such as great-, ex-, and self-, and the suffix -elect, to base words, to create new words such as great-grandfather, ex-boyfriend, self-directed, and president-elect.

Hyphens are also used in compound words like jack-in-the-box and father-in- law; spelled-out numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine, in fractions (one-fourth, one-ten-thousandth), in scores, (the Yankees won 7-3), and in dates (12-31-2008).

Lastly, hyphens are especially helpful in combining words whose spelling would make the new word appear awkward. For instance, if you wanted to say that something, say buttons, looked like shells, you might say that they were shell-like. Without the hyphen, the word would have three ls in a row: shelllike, which would be very awkward.


Dashes can emphasize a word or a phrase, or they can identify the word or phrase as an afterthought.

George's painting is—I don't know—weird.

A dash can also be used like a colon, to set off a short series of words or phraseswithin a sentence.

Look at what's left—some chips, a half-eaten roll, and a soggy pickle.

A practice exercise for this concept can be found at Hyphens and Dashes Practice Exercise

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