When and Where to Use Hyphens
A hyphen is a small dash and is the most frequently used of the three punctuation marks. It is used mostly to join words together. A simple example is joining two or more words that describe a noun when they appear before the noun, such as in the following examples:
John drove down a one-way street.
This is a well-written essay.
The researchers conducted a trial-by-trial analysis.
The joined words in the above examples are called ‘compound modifiers’, ‘compound adjectives’ or ‘phrasal adjectives’, and the hyphen is used to prevent confusion or ambiguity. For example, without hyphens, the following sentence could be interpreted in two ways (he could be either a working man who is hard or a man who works hard):
He was a hard working man.
So, when a compound modifier contains an adverb that ends in -ly (such as a ‘beautifully drawn picture’), a hyphen is not used because there is no chance of ambiguity. The -ly ending tells the reader that the next word will be another modifier and not a noun.
Another use of the hyphen is to join compound numbers:
He was looking for house number twenty-five, where his stepsister had resided for thirty-two years.
It can also be used for prefixes, such as ex-, self-, and all-:
Joan did not want to meet her ex-husband because her self-confidence was at an all-time low.
When and Where to Use En Dashes
It is important to avoid mistaking a hyphen for an en dash. The en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen and shorter than an em dash. En dashes are usually used to indicate spans of figures, time and distance instead of the word ‘to’, or to highlight a relationship.
Here are some examples:
John knew the drive would take 2−3 hours.
The Sydney–Melbourne flight is full.
The spring months in the Northern Hemisphere are March–May.
The teacher–student rapport was excellent.
When and Where to Use Em Dashes
Em dashes are approximately the length of the letter m and can be used at the end, or in the middle, of a sentence. Em dashes are usually used to set off a parenthetical thought, to display an interjection, or to amplify or explain an element.
Here are a few examples:
John was proud of himself—he had received 90 points in his exam.
Joan was devastated—having just received her results—only achieving 65 points.
Betty was resigning from her job—she had won the lottery.
How to Create En Dashes and Em Dashes in Microsoft Word
If you are using Microsoft Word, there are several ways you can create en and em dashes:
- Click the Insert tab, click Symbols and then click Special Characters. The two dashes will be at the top of the list.
- If you have a full keyboard with a number pad, you can click Ctrl plus the minus symbol to create an en dash and Ctrl plus Alt plus the minus symbol to create an em dash.
- If you have a full keyboard with a number pad, you can click Alt plus 0150 to create an en dash and Alt plus 0151 to create an em dash.
- If you type two hyphens, Word will automatically change them to an em dash (unless this AutoCorrect option has been disabled on the computer you are using).
American Psychological Association, 2020, Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edn, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
University of Chicago Press, 2017, The Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) (2021) Australian Government Style Manual, stylemanual.gov.au.
Updated 5 October 2023