Liberate the Hyphen

The problem

In the complicated workplace of punctuation, the poor old hyphen needs to form a union. It dutifully performs its role of joining compound words and reliably appears when a suffix or prefix needs assistance. However, many students and writers drag the overworked hyphen into use while the en dash and em dash rest sadly on the sidelines. Dashes and hyphens have distinctly different uses, and while the rest of the world seems to have retired the dashes permanently, their correct use is still extremely important in academia and publishing. In fact, the incorrect use of dashes and hyphens is perhaps one of the most common errors encountered during editing.

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The solution

In the interests of resting the exhausted hyphen—and assuaging the sticklers among us—I would like to reaffirm the role of hyphens, em dashes and en dashes.


Hyphens are used for some prefixes (such as ex-husband) and suffixes (such as thirty-odd). Certain compound words also require hyphens to unite them. For example, the 22-year-old man gave flowers to his kind-hearted mother-in-law.

En dashes

En dashes most commonly connect number ranges. In academic writing, they are usually found dividing page ranges (pp. 135–150) or years (1965–1995). Usually I find myself busiest with en dashes in bibliographies, where the hyphen frequently sits resentfully and incorrectly between page ranges.

Em dashes

Em dashes are used to separate elements within a sentence. A simple way to view the em dash is as a kind of comma. If the section of text within the sentence can be separated with a comma, such as I’m doing now, then an em dash could also be used. Em dashes can also be used to cobble another piece of information onto the end of a sentence—like this. Liberate the Hyphen

How to

Dashes have been so neglected that even many keyboards hide them away. I work mostly on my laptop, which requires that I awaken my dashes with Alt and a number. For the en dash, I type Alt, then 0150. The em dash appears when I enter Alt and 0151.

Use and disuse

Once you are familiar with the rules of the dashes, finding them in their natural habitat can be quite exciting. While reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, I found the em dash winking at me proudly from many pages. Krakauer seems as fond of the em dash as I am. Conversely, some mainstream newspapers seem to have given up the hyphen–dash fight, which is disappointing. The use of the hyphen to separate numbers or parts of a sentence is not a matter of personal choice. It is incorrect.

Call to action

Perhaps this is an inevitable trend in mainstream media, but in academic and formal writing, accuracy is extremely important. If you have put in the hard work of researching, writing and refining a thesis or article, it seems fitting that it be adorned with the correct punctuation. As with all things in the complex world of punctuation and grammar, there are special exceptions and hearty debates. However, if you stick with the rules outlined above, you can help the dashes reclaim their territory from the hyphen imposters.

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