Hyphens and dashes – A how-to guide

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If I had a cent for every misused hyphen or dash I corrected, I’d — well, I’d hardly be rich but I’d have THOUSANDS of cents!

Using hyphens and dashes correctly can be tricky, whether English is your mother tongue or a second language.

There are three sorts of hyphens and dashes. They are sometimes referred to as short, medium or long dashes. The correct terms are hyphen (-), en dash (–) and em dash (—)

The hyphen

The hyphen is the shortest dash. It’s used in compound nouns that represent a single concept (mother-in-law; x-ray; close-up) and in compound adjectivesan up-to-date manual, a made-to-measure suit.

The most common mistake people make is using hyphens when they are not required, or vice versa. They know they’ve seen up-to-date or made-to-measure  with hyphens, but haven’t known or wondered why, and just think “OK, I need to put hyphens in this.” So they write this information is up-to-date or this suit is made-to-measure — which is wrong!

The rule of thumb is: if the descriptor comes before the noun (i.e. as an adjective), hyphenate. If it comes after, don’t hyphenate.

Read on to see why and how…

Key rules for using hyphens

  • Use hyphens to bring words together when you want to combine their meanings into a single adjective that describes a noun. 
    So you’d put the hyphens in this is up-to-date information / a made-to-measure suit because in this case you want to combine up+to+date into a single adjective describing ‘information’ and made+to+measure into a single adjective describing the suit. By putting in hyphens, you’ve combined 3 different words into 1 single descriptor, called a compound adjective.
  • Don’t put hyphens in word sequences that come after the noun. So you’d write This information is up to date because up to date simply means it is correct up to [today’s] date. Or This suit is made to measure because it is made to the measure of the wearer. No need for hyphens.
  • Similarly, you put hyphens in close-up because you are combining the 2 words into a single concept. It’s called a compound noun. And in this case, you would always use hyphens when you mean a photo taken at close range. (Don’t hyphenate the words close+up at other times: I moved over to the wall to look at the portrait close up.)
  • Don’t use a hyphen to combine words that can be written as a single word without any risk of misreading or ambiguity, such as email, airline, goldfish…
  • Use a hyphen to avoid ambiguity. [Arguably,] it’s better to write co-worker than coworker because that could be read as cow-orker (causing the reader to mentally stumble for an instant). Use a hyphen to distinguish between words with different meanings, such as re-creation and recreation, re-covered and recovered
  • In adverb-adjective modifiers, there is no hyphen when the adverb ends with -ly: locally sourced eggs. 

EXCEPTIONS - Don't use a hyphen if it's not helpful to the reader.

There are many cases where strictly speaking you should have a hyphen but in practice it’s often not used. For example a well designed suit or a well trained dog or a high school student. Nobody is going to think, if you write well dressed woman that you mean a healthy woman wearing clothes.

Different style guides rationalize this in different ways but it boils down to this: when there’s no real ambiguity and the hyphen is just unnecessary clutter in your text, leave it out.

Use en dashes in dates and numbers.

One standard hyphenation rule I find helpful from a usability perspective concerns en dashes. En dashes (–), or ‘short’ dashes, are used to indicate inclusive dates or numbers and can be read as ‘from … to’: March 27–April 4; children aged 5–8; pp. 14–17. I think this makes dates/numbers easier to read, so it gets my vote.

Use en or em dashes in sentences.

Em dashes (—), or ‘long’ dashes, are used to separate a clause in a sentence or to break off the last part of a sentence from the rest:
  • Dogs — whether long-haired or short-haired — can quickly become overheated in cars in hot weather
  • Dogs can quickly become overheated in cars — especially in hot weather.
In principle, you can use en dashes instead of em dashes – like this – to separate a clause in a sentence.

Put spaces around en or em dashes.

Many style guides state that if en or em dashes are used to separate a clause, there should be no spaces before or after the dash. Some guides say there should be no spaces around an em dash, but spaces around an en dash.

I don’t agree. Spaces improve the readability (hence, usability) of the text.

Usability: dashes, spaces and reading on a screen

I recommend always using em dashes — with spaces on either side — to separate clauses or to separate the end of a sentence.


  • Because more and more, we’re reading on screens, not on paper.
  • On a screen, it’s easier to see dashes that are longer and have spaces on either side.
  • Depending on the font, sometimes en dashes look as short as a hyphen, so the clause separation is not immediately obvious if you use an en rather than an em dash.


So there you have it. An easy guide to hyphens and dashes — now there’s no excuse for getting it wrong (I’m talking to you, V.!).

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