Wednesday Writing Tip: The Dash or the Hyphen?

Dear Master’s student,

As I reported in our blog about the semi-colon, there are 14 punctuation marks in standard English grammar. Can anyone name them?   (Here’s some help from the West Wing.  Skip to 1:17 for the answer.)  Two of those are the hyphen and the dash.

Most of us have heard about the dash and the hyphen, but there are a lot of people who confuse them—even though these people feel that they should be able to differentiate the lines.  (This is how I feel about Venus and Serena Williams.)

Hyphen

On a standard QWERTY keyboard, the hyphen (-) is between 0 and = in the number line row.  The hyphen is primarily used to create compound words.  It’s probably most familiar in compounds such as self-esteem, sister-in-law, sugar-free, or up-to-dateHyphen

The hyphen can also be used to join a prefix to another word, especially if the prefix ends with the same letter with which the next word begins, as in co-ordinateor re-evaluate.  (The New Yorker has a famous and longstanding tradition of using diaeresis in lieu of this kind of hyphen.)  Of course, you could just as easily type coordinate or reevaluate with no confusion.

However, when you add a prefix to a number (as in post-1970s Spain) or to a name (pre-Colombian civilizations), the hyphen is obligatory.

For more on the hyphen, check out the Oxford Dictionary’s hyphen page.

Next week we’ll look at the dash.

Until then, here’s to well-written, correctly-hyphenated prose!
James

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