Word Nerd: The Ever-Mighty Hyphen

Hello, all! The lovely folks of Geekin’ Out have asked me to write a new column — piece? article? general pathetic blathering? — in addition to my weekly Late to the Party reviews. I am pleased (tickled pink, even) to present to you … the Word Nerd. In these pieces (seems as good a word as any for them), I will more than likely focus on a particular aspect of the English language and go on for ages about it, be it diction, syntax, grammar, or a general rounding of its mechanics. I may also use it from time to time to review a book, short story or some such because … why not? They use words, don’t they?

First up in the docket is the subject of hyphens when compared to dashes. My manager and I often get into minor tiffs about which to use in which instance, and the fact that she defaults to hyphens 80% of the time rather irks me. Why do we care?: because our job involves proofreading and copy-editing documents to make sure they are as perfect as can be before they’re sent out to clients; part of that perfection involves the proper use of punctuation. (Hee, alliteration. Never gets old.)

Unless you’re already a typography aficionado or you have keen eyes when you’re reading, you may not know that there is in fact a difference between a hyphen and a dash, or even that there are two different types of dashes completely separate from hyphens. The only way you can tell them apart, really, is when you compare their sizes, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate with some clarity below.


If you’re at all interested in this and you don’t already know, I imagine you’re wondering why these different marks exist and why the dashes have such odd names. The reasoning is quite simple: the en-dash is the approximate length of an ‘n’ and the em-dash the approximate length of an ‘m’. Easy enough, no?

Now for the usage. Hyphens are primarily used to connect sections of a word if it’s broken over the edge of a line of text (e.g. ‘pat-tern’) or to meld two or more related words into one (e.g. ‘third-party claim’). The latter concept tends to throw some people for a loop, so I’ll do my best to explain.

Hyphens are needed to join two descriptors that are used in conjunction with each other to target another word, as in the given example above. If we were to take away the hyphen, we would be left with ‘third party claim’. In that case, we should read it as ‘third’ describing the party with the word ‘claim’ trailing along aimlessly after it.

Where this rule usually confuses people is when the descriptors come later in the sentence, after the word they are meant to describe. To write ‘[t]he firm received a claim from a third-party’ would be incorrect, because in this case, there is only one word that is in need of a descriptor: ‘party’. Was it a birthday party, a retirement party, or a third party? This rule also applies to descriptors that are both adjectives or adverbs (e.g. “an extremely-nervous child”, “a child who was extremely nervous”).

I now feel the need to throw a curve-ball at you in the form of ice-cream. Yes, it’s “ice-cream”. Almost everyone, including myself up until a few years ago, writes it as “ice cream”, which is technically incorrect. Why? ‘Ice’ and ‘cream’ are two separate nouns, but one is being used to describe the other. If I were to write, “I’d like a scoop of ice cream”, it should be taken as “I want a scoop of ice”, and again, ‘cream’ is left to trail behind like a lost puppy. If you put the two words together as ‘ice-cream’, though, the problem is solved, because they are now one item, one entity — a puppy on a leash, if you will. (As an alternative, you could also write it as ‘iced cream’. Do whichever works for you.)

There is yet another use for the hyphen that many people are simply oblivious to, mainly because it is seldom used except in technical writing. These handy and versatile little marks can help to cut down on the repetition used in certain sentences by removing a word that has already been used under a particular set of circumstances. As an example, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘post-surgery’, as it’s quite a common one, especially among the accident-prone and anyone who’s had a major medical procedure done. It is not uncommon (again, in more technical samples of writing) to read the words ‘pre-surgery’ and ‘post-surgery’; when used one after the other in the same sentence, they can be written as ‘pre- and post-surgery’. This can be done for most hyphenated words that have a different prefix but are used concurrently, few as those words may be.

This has gotten to be much longer than I was expecting it to be, so I’ll leave the explanation of en- and em-dashes for next time. (I know you’re disappointed, but I’m sure some other articles here will tide you over!) Feel free to play around a bit with using hyphens. You’ll likely find yourself using them much more often than you were before, which is perfectly fine; I use a ridiculous number of them compared to the average person, and it doesn’t matter because I’m using them the way they ought to be used.

Thank you for sticking around for this belated Language Arts lesson. I hope you learned something, or at the very least that you weren’t bored completely silly.

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  1. Ben
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m one of those people that follows the “if it looks right on the page, it’s probably correct” philosophy when it comes to using (and not using) hyphens and dashes. For example, “reset” looks better than “re-set”, “post-operative” looks more correct than “post operative”, etc. I’m conditioned to write things a certain way but I rarely think about the implications of hyphens on what I am saying, which probably leads to mistakes on occasion. Oh well, now that I’ve read this article, I’ll probably be more conscious of it…paranoid, even, but in a good way. Knowledge is power, after all 🙂

    • Toria
      Posted September 9, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      It is my goal to make you paranoid about how you write everything. 😛

  2. Michael Geiser
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Language, both spoken and written, evolve. “Ice cream” is certainly correct and “ice-cream” is as anachronistic as a rotory phone booth. I use “old shop” and not “ye olde shoppe”.

    If you’re going to go off on a rant on someone, how about these people that think texting abbreviations are ok in formal writting and people who indiscriminately use Your/You’re, It’s/Its, There/Their/They’re and Affect/Effect without any regard for their fellow man? These are the people that deserve to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

    • Toria
      Posted September 12, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      If you perceive this piece as a rant, let me assure you that I did not intend to write it as one. I’m sorry if you see it as such.

      I also did not wish to imply that language is a static thing. You are absolutely right to say that it evolves. Just because it’s an older way of writing, however, doesn’t make it wrong, and there is a reason that hyphen usage started off that way: it makes more sense. I am well aware that this piece is not going to change the way that the world uses that particular bit of punctuation, just as another article about ChatSpeak wouldn’t change the fact that people are going to continue to use ‘thx’ in emails to business partners.

      I chose not to write about texting abbreviations and oft-misused homonyms because who doesn’t write/complain about those? Everyone I know who cares about the English language goes off about those things on a regular basis, myself included. I wanted to write something different, something that people likely hadn’t thought of, rather than giving the whole ‘ChatSpeak is killing the written language’ tirade. It’s a valid point, to be sure, but it’s also a tired one. Hyphens and dashes were on my mind when I sat down to write this piece, and so here it is.

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