Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

Linking words, or a group of words within sentences, can be equated to the linking of hands to convey connectivity and cohesion. But the linking of certain words or phrases in a sentence using a ‘dash’ requires careful consideration. On many occasions I have had to explain the misuse of hyphens to act as parentheses—to enclose a word, phrase, or clause—instead of using em dashes (as used in this sentence). This misunderstanding of the function of the hyphen, which should be used purely to connect words, not words within sentences, flows through every writing project that I assess, edit or proofread—fiction and non-fiction.

I have written two articles for my series The Art of Writing & EditingHyphenation and The Ellipsis & the Em Dash—but a review (reminder!) may be helpful. I think the main issue for writers using hyphens in a sentence is that the hyphen is easily accessed on computer keyboards (on the top row between the ‘0’ and ‘=’). This means many writers use the hyphen for any situation requiring a pause or break in a sentence, their reasoning being: it IS a dash. They are either unaware that they should use the longer em dash or they do not know where to find an em dash on the keyboard. Of course editors and proofreaders will correct the error, but writers I work with appreciate knowing and understanding the specific roles of ‘dashes’ in punctuation and in word relationships.

To be fair, many writers were probably not even aware of the em dash until the advent of word processors, when software programs enabled us to use these longer dashes that had previously only been available to professional printers/publishers. Our keyboards lack keys to insert the em dash; however, there are keyboard short-cuts, such as Windows:  Alt+Ctrl+ – (minus on numeric keypad); or type a word, then two hyphens together, then another word. When you click the space bar, the hyphens become an em dash. But the convoluted way (on my version of MS Word) is to place your cursor where the em dash needs to be inserted then: Insert/ Symbol/ More Symbols/ Special Characters/Click on Em Dash/Insert/Close. If you still can’t nail it to the page, just google “keyboard shortcut for em dash Windows . . .”


Em dash

An em dash (or rule) punctuates sentences (compared with hyphens, which punctuate words) and is roughly equivalent to the width of a capital ‘M’, so significantly longer than the hyphen. We use the em dash to:

  1. create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. It can replace a colon or semi-colon when expanding on a statement, giving greater emphasis to the information that follows it.

Vasari set up his Academia del Disegno—the first formal art academy in Italy.

 Incorrect substitution using a hyphen: Vasari set up his Academia del Disegno – the first formal art academy in Italy.

 Paintings would often illustrate a scene from the saint’s life—for example, St Michael was an archangel and is often featured in paintings of the Last Judgement.

 Acceptable alternative using a semi-colon: Paintings would often illustrate a scene from the saint’s life; for example, St Michael was an archangel and is often featured in paintings of the Last Judgement.


  1. signify a more abrupt (significant) change in the direction or tone of a sentence.

The night brought peace to the village—but there was pandemonium in one house.

Possible substitution of a comma, which diminishes the impact: The night brought peace to the village, but there was pandemonium in one house.


  1. isolate a parenthetic expression within a sentence.

The Codex is a unique collection of songs and poems by the Minnesinger—the German minstrels—whose work was popular at the time.

 Acceptable alternative using brackets (a comma could be inserted after the brackets):  The Codex is a unique collection of songs and poems by the Minnesinger (the German minstrels) whose work was popular at the time.

 There is also an en dash—its length is between the hyphen and the em dash—which is generally used instead of the em dash in British publications and media/news articles (with a space on either side of it). I summarise the role of the en dash in my hyphenation article.

Whether or not you have a space either side of an em dash depends on which style guide you follow—or your personal preference (I prefer no spaces). However, as the Snooks & Co. style manual warns: “Beware of using em rules too frequently. Overuse could indicate that there are too many qualifications and a lack of structural clarity.” Sound advice.



A hyphen punctuates words (e.g. double-barrelled surname).

Compound adjectives

Two or more adjectives are hyphenated if they act as a single idea and come before a noun they modify.

 an off-campus lecture

disease-free environment

a turn-of-the-century ceramic

a five-part series

a 30-year-old female


A hyphen is not required if a compound adjective consists of a comparative or superlative.

a better known artist

the student was well known (however, the well-known student)

the less educated employee

we considered the most likely scenario


When an adjective is preceded by an adverb ending in ly there’s no need to hyphenate.

A stylishly dressed host

The heavily monitored environment

An oddly shaped parcel

However, when the compound adjective before the noun consists of a word ending in ly and is followed by a word ending in ing, then add the hyphen.

A friendly-looking security guard


The best test is whether hyphenation will enhance meaning and avoid ambiguity.

A hot water bottle is a bottle that is hot, but a hot-water bottle defines its functionality.


Other word compounds: 

 two hyphenated nouns create a single concept (human or non-human)

 such as gallery-goer or owner-driver where both nouns have equal status, and hocus-pocus (rhyming expression).

When someone’s age is a noun, hyphenate.

That 90-year-old still runs marathons.

However, when age is part of a phrase after the noun, don’t hyphenate.

My neighbour is 100 years old.

Her dog is nearly two years old.


Writing numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine requires hyphenation.

I decided to hang thirty-three of the Gallery’s eighteenth-century English paintings.

 There are more than one hundred Post-Impressionist paintings in the exhibition.


There is often a hyphen between the prefix and the next word.





‘Hanging’ hyphens are used to connect two words to a base word or number that they share.

Pre- or post- 1980

Full- or part-time jobs 

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art


Use a hyphen to distinguish between words that look the same:

re-cover (cover again)/recover (regain/restore health)

re-signed (signed again)/resigned (leave your job)


Consider using em dashes more often (but not too often) to add emphasis, maybe even tension, and ultimately, rhythm to your sentences. Experiment with the em dash, but don’t belittle this mighty dash by substituting it with a hyphen.


Need your Writing Proofread?

If you’re ready to have your writing proofread, or you would like an appraisal of your writing, whether it is a complete manuscript or a work-in-progress, then please email me via my contact page with a brief overview of your needs.





Featured image: Paul Gauguin, Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, 1888, 73 cm x 92.7cm, NG Washington

Leave a Reply