Hyphens & Dashes
Hyphens and dashes are often confused and their uses misunderstood.
On a conventional keyboard, a hyphen is a single horizontal line used to combine words into compound words. A dash is a double-length hyphen used to separate sentences, clauses and phrases in place of a full-stop, comma, colon or semicolon.
Some of the most common uses of hyphens are:
- To link adjectives: quick-witted comedian; old-fashioned views; blue-collared worker;
- Numbers, fractions and adjectival compounds with numbers: twenty-one; one hundred and fifty-five; two-fifths; twice-weekly;
- To add a prefix: pro-choice; anti-establishment; re-stitch; co-pilot.
A common error is to include a hyphen in an adverbial qualifier in the same way as you would a compound adjective - 'really-big car ‘should be just 'really big car', and 'fairly-good player' just 'fairly good player'.
Hyphens can cause confusion because conventional usage often sees compound words lose their hyphen over time. This is particularly true of prefixed words. If in doubt, check a dictionary.
Dashes are in a sense grammatically unnecessary -there are no situations where grammatical rules dictate a hyphen must be used, and one can always be substituted with another punctuation mark. However, hyphens do have some useful stylistic effects.
Like brackets, colons and semicolons, dashes put clauses and phrases in parenthesis. Because they create a more marked visual division on the page than other punctuation marks, they add greater emphasis and are usually used to indicate an aside:
- Sir Francis Drake had to break off a game of bowls - he was a keen sportsman - when news of the Spanish Armada reached him.
Dashes are also useful for linking clauses when the writer wants to create a dramatic pause:
- It didn't matter what they said - I'd decided I was going to go;
- No one knows if the Holy Grail exists - yet it is one of the most talked-about artefacts in history;
- The evidence is overwhelming - critics are unanimous in their praise of Shakespeare's sonnets.
When reporting direct speech, a dash is used to indicate breaks and restarts:
- Mr A said: I think the main thing to remember is that we all --[section inaudible] but if we do, it'll be fine.
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