Writing E-Tips
October 2005   
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"Grammar is a piano I play by ear.
All I know about grammar is its power."

—Joan Didion

The Power of Punctuation, Part II

Using Hyphens and Dashes

     Hyphens and dashes are often confused simply because they look so much alike. In appearance, the hyphen is short, and the dash, long. The real difference, though, is in the ways each is used.


Hyphens are used for more than simply dividing words at the end of a line. Avoid errors by knowing the other times to use hyphens.

In Compound Nouns

Use hyphens to make certain compound nouns. When two words are used as one noun, they are often hyphenated; however, if you are unsure, check a dictionary.

The company had superb timing with its new line of bell-bottoms.

In Compound Adjectives

Two or more words that serve as a single adjective are hyphenated when placed before a noun.

The builders used double-thick insulation in that section.

Do not, however, use a hyphen when the two adjectives follow the noun.

The insulation in that section is double thick.

Exception: If the first word in the compound adjective is an adverb ending in –ly, the words are not hyphenated.

The newly carpeted boardroom has excellent acoustics.

In Compound Numbers and Fractions

Use hyphens to make compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

The crew walked up twenty-two floors because the elevator was out of order.

Use hyphens to separate the numbers in a fraction, unless one or both are already hyphenated.

three-fifths      seven thirty-fifths

In Multi-Part Hyphenated Expressions

A hyphen is used when two or more words have a common element that is written only with the last term.

The mid- and late-nineties models were our top sellers.


A dash can be an effective way to indicate a division within a sentence. Many word-processing programs automatically convert two hyphens into a dash. If yours doesn't, create one this way: on a PC, hold down the "alt" key while you type 0151; on a Mac, simultaneously press the option and shift keys while you type the hyphen. This creates what is called an "em" dash, which is preferable to using two hyphens in place of a dash. Use a dash in the cases shown below.

For Emphasis

Use a dash to set off a sentence part that you want to emphasize. If the set-off part comes in the middle of the sentence, use a dash both before and after it.

An analysis of the market would be helpful—for both companies.

To Set Off an Introductory Series

Use a dash to set off a series of words or phrases that is defined by the clause that follows it.

The moon, the sun, and Pennsylvania—those are the only places we don't have a strong market share.

To Set Off Examples

Use dashes to set off examples or explanations. This is especially useful when writing e-mail messages.

Our sales manager—she's currently at an out-of-town conference—will return Monday.

The preceding tips are from
Write for Business:
A Compact Guide to Writing
and Communicating

Now available for purchase at http://www.upwritepress.com/products/books_cds.php.


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Coming in the November Issue:
The Power of Punctuation, Part III"

Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating
is available for purchase at 1-800-261-0637 ext. 10,
or on the Web at http://www.upwritepress.com.

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