Tag Archives: compound words

Ever-so-helpful hyphens

by Haley Morton

A curious thing has happened in the recent weeks. It has come to my knowledge that as a spring semester senior, I have a serious grammatical problem. Punctuation problem, really. Hyphens. They’ll be the death of my capstone.

The good news is that the History Department allows its ever-so-diligent capstone students to turn in two drafts before the final. Thank heavens for drafts because this is where learning happens. For me, this “learning” meant acknowledging my inappropriate lack of hyphens throughout my 92-page capstone.

By doing a little research, I learned that the rules behind hyphens are rather straightforward. There are two rules you should note.

  1. Hyphens are used to mark compound adjectives. Compound adjectives are two are more adjectives that are all used to modify the same noun. If the adjectives come after the noun, a hyphen is unnecessary. For example:
  • Necessary hyphen: He had a bullet-proof vest.
  • Unnecessary hyphen: The vest was bullet proof.
  • Necessary: …ever-so-diligent capstone students…
  • Unnecessary: Capstone students are ever so diligent in their drafts.
  1. The use of hyphens can also change meaning. In other words, without hyphens in the needed place, your reader can confuse how you intend to modify the noun. For example:
  • “Small-state senator” is not the same as “small state senator.”

It’s entirely possible that you never find the need to use hyphens. Or, if you’re anything like me, maybe your lack of hyphens is an indicator of a serious punctuation problem only to be manifested in one’s capstone.

Happy editing, and make sure you use those fool-proof hyphens!


Haley is a senior at Principia College and a political science and history double major. She has spent the last four years writing, studying, and running cross country and track. She is almost finished working on her capstone about Title IX and women in athletics.

Dash it all!

by Genevieve Bergeson

In my punctuation pocket, I found three things.

–    This
–   That
The other thing

Are they the same? Did something break when I sat down?


So what have we got here? Two notoriously neglected/abused kinds of punctuation: the hyphen and the dash. But which is which? How do they differ? Let’s get these straight.

Here’s the line-up:

The Hyphen ( – ), alias “Shorty”

1. Makes compound words. They also attach single letters to words to make other words.

Ex. Merry-go-round, mind-boggling, T-shirt, twenty-one

2. Connects words that are split across two lines.

Ex. See, it makes con-


3. Attaches prefixes and suffixes.

Ex. Pre-fall, post-war, cat-like, length-wise.  (In some cases, the dash is starting to fall out of style; for instance, either “length-wise” or “lengthwise” is acceptable.)

Usually, hyphens do not affect meaning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Observe:

  • Kim’s T shirt was all the rage at the preschool staff meeting. (The teachers agreed it would be fun for her to wear when she taught the kids the alphabet.)
  • Kim’s T-shirt was all the rage at the pre-school staff meeting.  (It reminded the teachers of their fantastic summer breaks—soon to be missed once fall term began.)


The Dash ( –, )

Although two hyphens (–) may represent a dash, hyphens and dashes have very different functions.

Em dashes (—) always mark a big pause. They emphasize information by distinctly setting it off. They can also separate appositives—phrases that rename the noun(s) they immediately follow, such as this definition—with internal punctuation. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens without spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to —.

En dashes (–) express ranges in times or dates (and are interchangeable with “to”), e.g., 1775–1787. No drama involved. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens with spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to –.

Hopefully today’s dash of punctuation demonstrates that details do make a difference.

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.