Punctuation Puzzles: A Dash Or A Hyphen?

Perhaps the most misunderstood punctuation mark is the lowly dash. For starters, there really is no such thing as a simple dash. There actually are two types of dashes, the em dash and the en dash. Then there is that short horizontal mark (-) found on the upper right of your computer keyboard. Though often referred to as a dash, this is a hyphen.

So, let’s look at these punctuation cousins. This month in Writers’ Guild Tips & Techniques we will examine the hyphen. Next month we’ll tackle the em dash and the en dash. Fear not, dear writers, for the correct uses of all three can be mastered with some study and careful application.

The hyphen

The hyphen’s chief function is the formation of certain types of compound terms—primarily compound adjectives but also a smattering of compound nouns and compound verbs, such as “lean-to” or “nickel-and-dime.” These are terms “that consist of more than one word but represent a single item or idea,” according to punctuationguide.com. There are three types of compound terms: open, hyphenated and closed.

Open compounds such as “full moon,” “mountain bike” and “junior high school” are written as two or more separate words.

Closed compounds are written as single words, such as “haircut,” “notebook” and “makeup.”

A wrinkle to be aware of regarding open and closed compounds is that some open compounds become closed compounds over time, as their usage becomes more common. Fortunately, we can use an online dictionary such as merriam-webster.com to find out if a term is an open or a closed compound.

Now we come to hyphenated compounds that include adjectives. These most often are two-part adjectives or adjective-adverb combinations, such as “well-written,” “high-quality” and “two-part.” The general rule is that these compounds need to be followed by the nouns they are modifying for them to be hyphenated. If the nouns they are modifying precede the two-part (or three- or four-part) adjectives, these compound adjectives, known as predicative compound adjectives, are not hyphenated.

For example: The dress was made of high-quality fabric. vs. The fabric used was high quality.

Here we arrive at one of those gray areas of English punctuation. “In some cases, whether or not a compound should be hyphenated is open to debate,” according to editorgroup.com. For example, many style experts say that “noun-plus-adjective compounds should be hyphenated,” the site notes.

Example: The fan was energy-efficient—with “energy” the noun and “efficient” the adjective.

They conclude: “Ultimately, the choice of whether to hyphenate [certain terms] or not comes down to common sense: if it makes sense without a hyphen, leave the hyphen out. If the hyphen would make the sentence clearer, add one in.”

Fair warning, though: this does not give the writer free rein when to use and not use hyphens. The safe play is to a) use an online dictionary to research any compound term in question for proper punctuation and b) follow the prevailing rules regarding punctuating compounds, especially with compound words that are not found in the dictionary.

A final note: this newsletter is not an exhaustive guide to using hyphens. There are additional rules regarding adjective-adverb compounds, such as “amazingly good,” compounds with present participles, such “good-looking,” and more. When in doubt, your best bet is to research these online on a case-by-case basis.

In next month’s Writers’ Guild Tips & Techniques we will explore the em dash and the en dash.

Until then, may the flame of God Mercury be with you.

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