Don't Confuse the Hyphen With the Dash

The hyphen is a short horizontal mark of punctuation ( - ) used between the parts of a compound word or name, or between the syllables of a word when divided at the end of a line. Don't confuse the hyphen (-) with the dash (—).

As a general rule, compound adjectives that come before a noun are hyphenated (for example, "a coffee-colored tie"), but compound adjectives that come after a noun are not hyphenated ("My tie was coffee colored"). Hyphens are usually omitted with commonly used compound adjectives (such as "the tax reform bill") and with adjectives preceded by adverbs ending in -ly ("an oddly worded note").

In a suspended compound, such as "short- and long-term memory systems," note that a hyphen and a space follow the first element and a hyphen without a space follows the second element.

In his book Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015), David Crystal describes the hyphen as "the most unpredictable of marks." Examining all the possible variations in the use of the hyphen, he says, would call for "an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story."

From the Greek, a sign indicating a compound or two words that are read as one

Examples and Observations

  • "The hyphen continues to serve us, often by removing ambiguity from sentences. . . . Here are some expressions whose ambiguity can be removed by a hyphen: old furniture dealer, hot cow’s milk, the minister met small businessmen, 30 odd members, a little known city, recovered the sofa, man eating tiger. Lynne Truss points to the different meanings of 'extra marital sex' with and without a hyphen."
    (V.R. Narayanaswami, "Euro Guide to the Use of Hyphens.", August 14, 2012)
  • "I have a worn-out and faded brown robe that I cherish above all my other robes."
    (Thich Nhat Hanh, My Master's Robe. Parallax Press, 2005)
    "I was worn out, bored, and feeling extremely sorry for myself."
    (Caitlin Kelly, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. Portfolio, 2011)
  • "Along the front of the wall she created a ten-foot-wide sloping garden, which met the final twenty feet of lawn that ran out to the sidewalk."
    (Gordon Hayward, Taylor's Weekend Gardening Guide to Garden Paths. Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
  • "I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind."
    (Jeffrey Jones as Principal Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986)
  • "The mourners on the front benches sat in a blue-serge, black-crepe-dress gloom."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970)
  • "Yesterday, rain-fog; today, frost-mist. But how fascinating each."
    (Fiona Macleod, "At the Turn of the Year," 1903)
  • "I'm part of the blame-America-last crowd."
    (Stephen Colbert)
  • "New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions."
    (William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907)
  • "Lord Emsworth belonged to the people-like-to-be-left-alone-to-amuse-themselves-when-they-come-to-a-place school of hosts."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh, 1915)
  • "The hyphen is the most un-American thing in the world."
    (Attributed to President Woodrow Wilson)
  • Quick Guidelines for Using Hyphens
    "The use of hyphens in compounds and complex words involves a number of different rules, and practice is changing, with fewer hyphens present in contemporary usage. For example, compound words may be written as separate words (post box), hyphenated (post-box) or written as one word (postbox).
    "Particular prefixes regularly involve a hyphen (e.g. ex-minister, post-war, self-interest, quasi-public).
    "Hyphens are normally used in compounds in which the pre-head item is a single capital letter (e.g. U-turn, X-ray), and hyphens are sometimes needed to disambiguate certain words (e.g. re-form = form again, reform = change radically).
    "In numerically modified adjectives, all modifying elements are hyphenated. Note that these forms are only used attributively (e.g. an eighteen-year-old girl, a twenty-ton truck, a twenty-four hour flight)."
    (R. Carter and M. McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • How Punctuation Practices Change
    "Here's [an example] of the way practices change. It's standard now to spell today, tomorrow, and tonight without a space or hyphen. But when the words first arrived in Old and Middle English they were seen as a combination of preposition to followed by a separate word (dæg, morwen, niht), so they were spaced. This usage was reinforced by Dr. Johnson, who listed them as to day etc. in his Dictionary (1755). But people began to think differently in the nineteenth century, and we see the big new dictionaries (such as Worcester's and Webster's) hyphenating the words. People began to get fed-up with this in the twentieth century. Henry Fowler came out against it in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926): The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism. He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony: It is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by those who profess the mystery of printing. 'Lingering' was right. In fact we see instances of the hyphenated form right into the 1980s." (David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2015)
  • Churchill on Hyphens
    "One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible. Where a composite word is used it is inevitable, but . . . [my] feeling is that you may run them together or leave them apart, except when nature revolts."
    (Winston Churchill, to his long-time secretary Eddie Marsh, 1934)
  • The Lighter Side of Hyphens
    "I'll have the misspelled Caesar salad and the improperly hyphenated veal osso-buco."
    (Restaurant patron to a waiter, cartoon in The New Yorker, June 3, 2002)
    Reggie: The program sets them up with a fair income, and a nice little house. White, with a walk-in closet. . . . Well, write it down. "Walk-in closet."
    Roy: Is "walk in" hyphenated?
    (Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in The Client, 1994)
    Bartender: Who would you be?
    Wilson: High-Spade Frankie Wilson—with a hyphen. That's what I sit on when I get tired.
    (Winchester '73, 1950)

Pronunciation: HI-fen

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Don't Confuse the Hyphen With the Dash." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Don't Confuse the Hyphen With the Dash. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Don't Confuse the Hyphen With the Dash." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).