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Hyphens & Dashes [Screencast]

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Howdy Ags! Welcome to the Write Right podcast. Today we are going to talk briefly about how to use hyphens and dashes. The two can be confusing, so we are going to learn the difference between them and when to use them in a sentence.

When you break it down, the difference is simple. Hyphens are used to punctuate in between individual words, while dashes are used to punctuate whole sentences. Let’s look at each of these concepts in further detail.

A hyphen is used with modifiers before a noun. A modifier is a word or group of words that is used to describe a noun. There are several types of modifiers. A compound modifier is a string of two or more nouns before the primary noun. In our example here, the word “values” is our main noun. The words “middle” and “class” are both used to describe what type of values. So here we would insert a hyphen. You also use a hyphen with a phrase that modifies a noun such as “all-or-nothing risk,” or “step-by-step instructions,” or with a prefix of a proper noun such as “pro-Catholic” or “neo-Nazi.”

However, it is important to note that hyphens are only used when the modifiers come before the noun. We would use a hyphen if we were to say that Picasso is a “well-known artist,” but we would not use a hyphen if we were to say he is an artist who is well known. Also, do not use a hyphen after words that end in “ly” or when one of the modifying words is the word very.

Now, on to dashes. For our purposes today, we will discuss two types of dashes: the en dash and the em dash. These dashes are distinguished in the text by their length. The en dash has a very specific use. It is used with numerical ranges such as years, months, and times. Additionally, you find them when you talk about a connection such as a “father-daughter relationship”  or last week’s football score that was 21-31. Both the “en dash” and the “em dash” can be inserted into a text using the “insert symbol” feature in Microsoft Word. The “em dash” can also be created using two hyphens in a row.

An em dash is used often in prose or academic writing to set apart a thought, author’s commentary, or an aside from the main clause of the sentence. It is used to indicate a sudden shift in thought or can also be used to create emphasis to a comment. To say it simply, an em dash draws the reader’s attention to an abrupt break in the main flow of the sentence. An em dash can indicate an opinion of the author or a shift in tone. Look at this short dialogue between George and Jim. “I am looking for a nice restaurant to take Sara to on Valentine’s Day.” To which Jim replies, “Ruth’s Chris is a five-star restaurant—if your idea of a good date is expensive food.”  An em dash can also set apart additional information that is of specific importance. In our sample sentence here, we can expect that the author is going to go on and explain the symbolism of each color because they were set apart as important. Some sentences cut off abruptly for effect. You often see an ellipsis here; however, you can also use a dash. Lastly, a dash can added for suspense or drama. “Christina felt as though she had been punched in the gut; she could hardly believe that stranger at her door was really who he claimed to be—the brother she hadn’t met in twenty years.”

Well, that’s all the grammar we have time for today. Thank you for listening in to the Write Right podcast. Hopefully now you’ll be able to properly hyphenate your modifiers and add a dash or two to your writing for a little spice. Be sure to check out our other podcasts on more tricky grammar subjects.

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