January 25, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 4

Continuing with punctuation, today, we’ll be looking at more dashes and hyphens! To read about em dashes and en dashes, click back to part three of the punctuation series. After this post, we’ll probably have just one more lesson in punctuation—apostrophes and quotation marks!


Figure dash:

The figure dash (–) is used when a dash must be used within numbers, such as a phone number (123–456–7890) or a date (1–30–1989), but it does not indicate a range, which is a function of the en dash. To create a figure dash in MS Word, you must type a character, space, use the - key, space, and type another character. For example, a - b, which should correct to a – b. The figure dash is obviously not widely used in fiction. In fact, I don’t think anyone actually uses the figure dash, using a hyphen (-) instead (123-456-7890 or 1-3-1989), but I suppose it’s important to know the proper way to use it. To create the figure dash, you type a character, space, use the - key, space, and type another character. For example, a - b, which should correct to a – b. Or, you can press CTRL+Numerical Minus (the one on the number pad). The same as creating the en dash.

Horizontal bar:

The horizontal bar (—) is also known as a quotation dash, and it’s used to introduce quoted text. This isn’t widely used in English, but it is frequently used in many other languages, replacing quotation marks (“”). For more information, visit the non-English usage of quotation marks page on Wikipedia.

Swung dash:

The swung dash resembles a lengthened tilde (~), and is used to separate alternatives or approximates. In dictionaries, it is used to stand in for the term being defined in the sentence example. Wikipedia gives this example: henceforth (adv.) from this time forth; from now on; “ ~ she will be known as Mrs. Wales”, with the “~” taking the place of “henceforth”. It’s not something you would use in fiction, but in case you come across it, now you know what it means.


The hyphen is a punctuation marked used to join words and to separate syllables of a single word. It should not be confused with dashes, which I have already covered. Its function is different than the minus sign, obviously, but they use the same keystroke (-). Spaces should not be placed between a hyphen and either of the words it connects, except when using a suspended or “hanging” hyphen; for example (thanks to Wikipedia): nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers.

As with dashes, different manuals of styles provide different usage guidelines. The rules of style that apply to dashes and hyphens have evolved, with editors accepting deviations from them that will support ease of reading. The use of the hyphen in compound nouns and verbs is becoming less common. Compounds that were once hyphenated are left with spaces or are combined into one word.

Justification and Line-wrapping:

In periodicals especially, the hyphen is often used to break a word in half so that it continues on another line rather than moving the entire word to the next line. The word may be divided at the nearest breakpoint between syllables, and a hyphen inserted to indicate that the letters form a word fragment that will be continued on the next line. Hyphenation is not necessary in manuscripts. The decision to use hyphenation or not is up to the typesetter.

To add hyphenation to your document in MS Word 2010, go to Page Layout, and under the Page Setup tab, you’ll see the Hyphenation option. I recommend selecting Automatic.

Prefixes and Suffixes:

Certain prefixes may or may not be hyphenated, and in some cases, usage varies depending on individual or regional preference. However, a hyphen is necessary when a prefix is applied to a proper (capitalized) adjective; for example: un-American. In British English, hyphens may be used where readers may mispronounce the word; for example: co-worker, punctuated to prevent the recognition of cow in the unhyphenated version. Hyphens may also be used in association with prefixes and suffixes when repeated vowels or consonants are pronounced separately rather than being silent or merged in a diphthong. For example: shell-like, anti-intellectual, co-operation. Some prefixed words are hyphenated to distinguish them from other words, such as recreation (fun or sport) and re-creation (the act of creating again). It should be noted that most word processors will correct words that need to be hyphenated, or will offer suggestions for hyphenation or alternate spelling.

Syllabification and Spelling:

Hyphens are used to denote syllabification (I love that word!), as in syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion. Most British and North American dictionaries use a hyphenation point (syl·la·bi·fi·ca·tion). Hyphens may also be used to indicate a word is being spelled, such as G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E.

Compound modifiers:

Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that jointly modify the meaning of another word. When a compound modifier other than an adverb-adjective combination appears before a term, the compound modifier is often hyphenated to prevent misunderstanding. Wikipedia gives the examples: American-football player and little-celebrated paintings. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether the writer means a “player of American football” or an “American player of football” and whether the writer means “celebrated paintings that are little”. Compound modifiers can extend to three or more words, as in ice-cream-flavored candy, and can be adverbial, such as spine-tinglingly frightening. However, if the compound is a familiar one, it is usually unhyphenated, such as high school students rather than high-school students. The former could be taken as meaning “stoned students”, but most everyone reads it properly.

When a compound adjective follows the term it applies to, a hyphen is not typically used; for example: that gentleman is well respected, not that gentleman is well-respected. As stated above however, if you reworded the phrase to say well-respected gentleman, the hyphenation would be correct.

Hyphens are also used to connect numbers and words forming adjectival phrases, whether using numerals or words for the numbers, as in 28-year-old woman and twenty-eight-year-old woman. They’re used when spelling out fractions, such as two-thirds majority and one-eighth portion, and when spelling out units of measurement, such as a roll of 35-millimeter film; however, using the abbreviation, the hyphen is not used, such as a roll of 35 mm film.  

Other Uses:

As stated earlier in the figure dash section, a hyphen may be used to connect groups of numbers, such as dates, telephone numbers, or sports scores, but it is technically more proper to use an en dash (which consequently, can also be hyphenated to en-dash).

So, hopefully you have a clear understanding of hyphens and dashes, and the differences between them. Next post, we’ll be looking at apostrophes and quotation marks.

And, as always, Happy Writing!


  1. I've always heard these referred to as the en dash (–) and em dash (—). The 'en' and 'em' simply referring to the length of the dash (en dash is the length of the letter 'n' and em is that of the letter 'm'. The Chicago Manual of Style has 5 pages just on the use of dashes (they're actually much more useful than you might think).

    Love these posts! Keep it up!

  2. I know I oft confuse which dash, hypen, whatever mark to use. So much to remember.