Open or Closed

One problem writers sometimes struggle with is when to use hyphens to join descriptive words. Here are a few examples that show some of the basic rules to guide you in the use of hyphens.


  1. Sometimes we use an adjective and a noun to describe another noun.

Example:   a high-class event.

Without the hyphen we might wonder if it was a class event where everyone got high, or it took place on a mountain or in the penthouse. Did the event only allow the people from one class, such as grade 12?

The hyphen helps to clarify meaning.

The general rule is: hyphenated before but not after a noun, like this:

“a high-class event,”  but “the event was high class.”


“a small-town sheriff,” but “the sheriff was from a small town.” (If we wrote it without the hyphen [as in small town sheriff]  we might wonder if the sheriff from the town was small).


2. If you use an adjective and a participle, it might look like this:

“a well-dressed woman,”  but  “the woman was well dressed.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)

“an open-ended question,” but “the question was open ended.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)


3. Adverbs ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective are open, whether before or after a noun. No hyphens.

It was a poorly paid job.

We ate a quickly prepared meal.


4. Adverbs not ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective.

“She got some much-needed dental work,” but “her dental work was much needed.”

“He had the worst-paid job at the plant,” but “his job at the plant was the worst paid one.”

(hyphenated before but not after a noun)

However …

when using  more, most, less, least, and very, these are usually kept open (no hyphen) unless ambiguity threatens.

For example:

most talented musicians (refers to almost all musicians with talent; the most in number), but the most-talented musicians (the musicians with the most talent).

When the adverb rather than the compound as a whole is modified by another adverb, the entire expression is open.

(from Chicago Manual of Style)


a very much needed job

There is much more to know about hyphens but we don’t want to go on overload.



Hyphens and Dashes

These little lines that float in the air between numbers and letters can certainly give a writer a headache.
I’d like to talk about three most commonly used “lines,” the hyphen (often simply called a dash), the en dash, and the em dash. You can think of the en dash as a line that is about as long as the typed letter “n,” and the em dash as one about the length of a typed “m.”
Here they are from shortest to longest.
– hyphen
– en dash
— em dash
When do we use them?
Does it matter which one we use?
Very much so.
Let’s begin with the shortest. The hyphen is mainly used to separate word parts such as when you are separating a word into syllables, but more often it is used to join two words that belong together.
In compound words:
Not all compound words are separated by a hyphen.
Some examples are:
downwind, houseboat, farmhouse, driveway, postman.
Some compound words need a hyphen.
long-term, mother-in-law, ready-made, fifty-fifty.
If you’re not sure when to use the hyphen between the two parts of the word, use your dictionary and try to remember the word for next time.
Hyphens are used as separators in numbers that are not inclusive. Telephone numbers, ISBNs, or social security numbers, for example.
Or you can use hyphens to spell out a word.
My name is Anneli. It’s spelled A-n-n-e-l-i.
Now that I’ve told you we use hyphens to separate numbers, I have to add that if the numbers are inclusive, such as “one to ten,” and usually if you can say from one number “through” to another number, you need to use an en dash, which is just a  bit longer than a hyphen.
Basically, with the en dash, you are saying “up to and including.”
Some examples:
The years 1970–1980 were the best of my life.
For more information, see chapters 8–10.
Come by for a visit on Saturday, 2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
I live at 395–5th St.
Then we have the em dash (—). It is mainly used to set off words or phrases that explain something in the middle of a sentence when an abrupt separation is required and a comma won’t do the trick. Also, a sudden break or interruption in conversation can end with an em dash.
My favourite artists—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cezanne—were not represented at the exhibition.
I looked like I had aged  ten years overnight—I hadn’t slept a wink—but it was too late to worry about it now.
We stopped at Amy’s house—what a party she had going on—to pick up my sister.
“What should I—?”
There are many more uses for each of the dashes, but these are the most common ones. Sorting these out would be a good start. After that, we’ll see….

The Three Dashes

Like the Three Bears, the Three Dashes have a Papa Dash, Mama Dash, and a Baby Dash.

The Papa Dash is the biggest, or let’s say the longest dash. It’s called an emdash.

The Mama Dash is the medium-sized one and is called an endash.

The Baby Dash is the shortest and the one we are most familiar with, the hyphen.

I’d like to begin with the Mama Dash, the endash, because it’s easily dealt with. It’s mainly used to separate numbers like dates, or if you want to say an amount such as from 3 to 7. The endash replaces the word “to.”

e.g. 1970 – 1980 or about 5 – 10

In Word, I made the endash by typing the number, a space, two dashes, a space, the other number, and a space.

The Baby Dash, hyphen, is used for joining some words that would otherwise be compound words. I trust my dictionary to tell me which words are compound words, such as “newspaper” and “desktop,” and which are hyphenated words such as “long-term.” This hyphen, though small, can be very important. Consider the compound word “housekeeper” and the hyphenated word, “house-keeper.” The housekeeper would be a person who does a lot of work to keep the house tidy, while the house-keeper could refer to someone like Zsa-Zsa Gabor, who called herself the best house-keeper ever. She was married several times and when her marriages ended she usually kept the house.

The hyphen is also used to connect words that describe a noun.

Here are some examples:

Most are hyphenated before, but not after a noun.

(adjective and noun) He had a high-maintenance girlfriend.

But his girlfriend was high maintenance.

(adjective and participle) We drove on a snow-covered highway.

But the highway was snow covered.

Other uses for the hyphen are for numbers and fractions.

e.g. two-thirds, twenty-seven

And now for the Papa Dash, the emdash. This one is easily overused.

The emdash is the long dash that is most often used for interruptions. There should be no space before or after it, and it is made (in Word) by typing the word, two dashes, the next word and then a space. The emdash will automatically form when you hit that last space.

Uses of emdashes are mainly for interruptions, as in dialogue, or as an emphatic aside. Here are examples of each:

“But I want—”

“I don’t care what you want.”

When I got home he had the house cleaned—he’s such a sweetheart—and even had supper ready.

Don’t be tempted to use the emdash for hesitation or pauses, and be stingy with its use. Too many emdashes on a page can make the text look chopped up. You don’t want to interrupt the flow of your writing unnecessarily. If you use it sparingly, it will be that much more effective when you do use it.

Thanks for reading, and now, excuse me please, but I must dash.

To find out more about Anneli Purchase, follow these links:

Anneli’s Website