Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

By M. Richard Eley

Part 1 — Hyphens

Back in the halcyon days of yore–and typewriters–there was only one choice for a “dash”: the hyphen key.

We all know what happened next: computers ruined our lives with their digital pomposity, smug 102-key keyboards, and self-righteous spell checking.

In the electronic age, we have five different choices for “dash” symbols, and all of them look similar. Each is unique, though, and has a specific use. In this and future articles we’ll explore a few punctuation symbols and their proper place in writing.

A hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms. The ancient Greek root for hyphen roughly means “into one” or “under one.” It blends two concepts into one idea. Use hyphens with no spaces on either side for creating fragments such as: eye-opener, free-for-all, twenty-five.

Nowadays, some words aren’t hyphenated which were in the past, such as “now-a-days,” for example.

Only use multiple hyphens when meanings would be unclear without them: “a twenty-five-year-old man” is fine with its three hyphens, as compared to “a twenty-five-year old man” which turns a young man into a senior citizen. “Dyed-in-the-wool democrat” tells us what kind of democrat the person is. “Dyed in the wool democrat” may possibly mean we colored something that was stuck inside a woolen democrat. If a phrase acts as a single modifier/concept for a noun, then it’s a likely candidate for multiple hyphens.

Avoid using hyphens to compound “-ly” words, unless they are construed as a single concept and contained within a longer sequence of words. This doesn’t happen often in modern writing except to make a point: “The movie’s rarely-well-directed scenes were disappointing.”

Technically not a dash, the hyphen is much shorter than the other “true” dashes–though many texts make no distinction between hyphens and dashes. It’s something of a gray area, like many other “rules” of grammar and spelling.

To produce a hyphen on most keyboards and operating systems, press either the Hyphen key on the top row (usually located by the Zero key,) or press the Hyphen key on the numeric keypad. Sometimes that’s called the Minus or Subtraction key, but any of those keys produce the same hyphen.

The true minus sign, surprisingly enough, is not produced by the numeric keypad’s key. On a PC running Windows, you can usually hold down the ALT key and type 65293 on the numeric keypad to produce a Unicode minus sign. (Alt-65291 is a Unicode plus sign.)

On a Mac, it’s tricky to get to this symbol and the method depends on your version of OS, but if you can invoke the special characters menu, you’ll see a number of symbols that are available. (Command-Option-T or Command-Option-Space, or from the edit tab, look for “special characters.”)

A minus looks like this: 7 + 2 - 8 = 1. You know it’s a true minus sign, not a hyphen, because it has a little spacing built in, and it’s the same width as the plus sign. Note the visual difference if the smaller hyphen is improperly used for a minus sign: 9-8=1. If a minus sign is misused for compounded words, they’ll look a bit strange: “the blood-red tulips,” verses “the blood-red tulips.”

Note: in the above examples, differences between characters may be hard to discern due to different web browsers, system settings and fonts.

So there you go, all you ever wanted to know about hyphens. Maybe more than you wanted to know, but knowledge is power. In my next article, we’ll look into the mysterious “eN dash.”

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