Drawing Lines

HYPHENS and DASHES are the most misused punctuation marks in the English language after commas, in my experience. Have you ever noticed that some writers refuse to use them, while others sprinkle them willy-nilly throughout their work without any apparent logic or reason? Many confuse hyphens with dashes, or think they are interchangeable. In fact, hyphens are not dashes and they each have specific uses.

Let’s get into it.

Why do we insert these horizontal little lines in our writing in the first place? Essentially, their purpose is to clarify phrases or sentences that would likely be misunderstood without them. If you compare the pairs of examples below, you will see how the meaning of a sentence can be changed depending on if or how hyphens or dashes are used.

The Hendersons brought their three-year-old sons to the doctor’s office. (hyphens)
(twins who are 3 years old)
The Hendersons brought their three year-old sons to the doctor’s office. (hyphen)
(triplets who are 1 year old)
My great-aunt, as well as Aunt Lucy, came to the family reunion. (hyphen)
(father/mother’s aunt plus father/mother’s sister Lucy)
My great aunt, as well as Aunt Lucy, came to the family reunion. (no hyphen)
(father/mother’s wonderful sister plus father/mother’s sister Lucy who might not be wonderful)
Small-business owners in the construction industry are often discriminated against. (hyphen)
(owners of small businesses)
Small business owners in the construction industry are often discriminated against. (no hyphen)
(business owners who are short or petite)
Her husband will discuss the check—in process as we speak—with the hotel manager. (em dashes)
(Her husband is discussing the check at this moment with the hotel manager as planned.)
Her husband will discuss the check-in process as we speak with the hotel manager. (hyphen)
(Her husband plans to discuss the process for checking into the hotel while some other individuals speak with the hotel manager.)
He attempted to re-collect his scattered thoughts. (hyphen)
(become calm and rational again)
He attempted to recollect his scattered thoughts. (no hyphen)
(remember fading thoughts)
I prefer the Monday-Friday schedule. (hyphen)
(Mondays and Fridays only)
I prefer the Monday – Friday schedule. (en dash)
(Monday through Friday)

In handwritten text, hyphens and dashes are mainly identifiable by how they are used, not by size, because of the wide variation in people’s handwriting styles. But in printed text, length matters, as well as how each one is used within the text.

Below, the hyphen and dashes are shown in order of width along with ways to insert them in your text.

* Use the hyphen key to the right of the number zero on the numbers row.
En Dash
* Type a word/number, type a space, type the hyphen key, type a space, type another word/number, type a space (AutoFormat inserts the en dash in Word).
* Enable Num Lock, use shortcut key combination: Ctrl plus the minus key on the numeric keypad.
* Insert > Symbol > More Symbols > Special Characters > select En Dash > Insert > Close
Em Dash
* Type a word, type two hyphens, type another word, type a space (AutoFormat changes the hyphens into an Em Dash)
* Enable Num Lock, use shortcut key combination: Ctrl plus Alt plus the minus key on the numeric keypad.
* Insert > Symbol > More Symbols > Special Characters > select Em Dash > Insert > Close
When to use a hyphen

Connecting two or more words and numbers to form one idea

absent-minded professorfull-length movie
fast-moving vehicleowner-operator of a business
six-hour drivethirty-four-year-old man
She spoke matter-of-factly about her trauma.ice-cream sandwich
over-the-counter medicinecase-by-case approach

Connecting last names of spouses (double surname)

Sarah Bennett-Johnson waved at me from across the street.
I invited Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza-Harris to the dinner party.

Connecting the ten’s place and one’s place in numbers from 21 to 99 when written as words


Writing telephone numbers, account numbers, serial numbers, part numbers, model numbers, etc.

Call 1-800-867-5309
Product serial number: A123-B456-C789-D012

Dividing words that start at the end of one line and end at the beginning of the next line (Typically, words are not hyphenated at the end of three consecutive lines; these are hyphenated for demonstration purposes only.)

Portion of book text displaying 3 hyphenated words appearing at the end of separate lines

Signifying a missing or inferred part of a hyphenated word (suspended/hanging hyphen); *I typically try to avoid these by rewording the sentence or including two complete hyphenated words.

Fifteen- and twenty-year contracts are subject to lower fees.
She selected the highest- and next-highest-scoring groups for the final round.
The study included English- and Spanish-speaking participants.

Adding prefixes (check a dictionary if you’re not sure whether a hyphen is needed)

mid-eightiesmid-Atlantic states
all-knowing oracleall-encompassing solution
They gave their all, knowing the finish line was near.allowed
re-sent (sent again)re-sign (sign again)
resent (begrudge)resign (give up, quit)

Creating fractions with compound adjectives

Add two-thirds of a cup of sugar.
The prize of a half-million dollars is up for grabs.

Representing the minus sign when writing negative numbers and subtracting

204=16 (AutoFormat will change the hyphen to an en dash when spaces are added, though)
5 degrees Fahrenheit
When NOT to use a hyphen (or dash)

When the modifier/adjective comes after the noun

Her students were well informed about the rules.
The house was poorly lit.

When combining an adverb with an adjective or participle

greatly anticipated event
very helpful instructions
horribly executed strategy

For open and closed compound words

Chocolate ice cream is my favorite dessert.(noun; open)
White House staff roles have been restructured.(adjective, open)
She offered to proofread my manuscript.(verb, closed)
The cover of my notebook was covered with stickers.(noun, closed)
When to use an EN dash (width of an N)

Connecting numbers or words to indicate a range, score, time period, or distance not introduced with the word “from”; replaces the word “to” or “through” (AutoFormat adds a space before and after, but they are not necessary)

These books are for children ages 5 – 8.
The Bandits won the game with a score of 10 – 9.
The Age of Enlightenment was approximately 1685–1815.
This company’s work week is Monday – Saturday.

For clarity when compound adjectives include an open compound word

Roaring Twenties–style fashion was all the rage. (no spaces around en dash)
Teachers provided some high school–level reading material. (no spaces around en dash)
When to use an EM dash (width of an M)

Before and after parenthetical and explanatory expressions

John packed all his camping supplies—tent, stove, food, dishes, and chairs—in the trunk.
The United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

After a list that comes at the beginning of a sentence

Guitar, ukulele, banjo—I want to learn how to play all of them!

Indicating an interruption or change in thought (informal writing)

My order was for a BLT—not a turkey club sandwich.
He’s running to the corner with—what is he doing now?

Indicating interrupted dialogue

Dorothy rambled on. “I just don’t understand why—”
“Please stop!” exclaimed Jen, exasperated.
“He should be here any—”
“Oh good,” Luke said, interrupting, “he just arrived.”

I’ve tried to be as comprehensive as possible. If you’re ever unsure whether a word or phrase should be hyphenated, check a dictionary or grammar book. If you feel this post is missing any important hyphen/dash rules or examples, please let me know in the comments.

He Said, She Thought

Written literature contains two types of dialogue, spoken and internal.

For the sake of defining terms, spoken dialogue refers to audible speech—words spoken by a character out loud. Internal dialogue refers to thoughts that are not spoken out loud. The majority of this article discusses spoken dialogue and addresses internal dialogue at the end. These rules apply to most non-academic fiction and nonfiction works; academic requirements for citations are NOT addressed as citation styles vary greatly in this regard.

I’ve done my best to list and explain rules about presentation of and punctuation in spoken dialogue. My article only discusses American English rules. UK English rules about quotations differ. 

I’ll start with the two most important rules:

  • Surround spoken dialogue (quotes) with double quotation marks.
  • When the person who is speaking repeats something that someone else said, place single quotation marks around the repeated words. These are often referred to as quotes within a quote.

Harry explained, “After I gave her the flowers, she said, ‘Thanks so much!’ and kissed me.”

“But what if she says, ‘No’?” he asked.

  • Always end dialogue with one of the following: comma, period, question mark, exclamation mark, dashes, or ellipsis; directly followed by double quotation marks. The ending quotation marks go after whichever ending punctuation mark is used.
  • Speech tags introducing dialogue should be followed by a comma.
  • When dialogue is broken up by narrative or speech tags, double quotation marks are still inserted before and after each instance of dialogue, leaving the non-dialogue outside the quotation marks.
  • The first word of dialogue in a sentence should always start with an uppercase letter. Non-dialogue words in the middle of a sentence should only be capitalized if they are proper nouns (e.g., Charles, Saturday, Don Quixote).

Following are a few examples showing how each type of punctuation should be used in spoken dialogue in combination with quotation marks.

“I will set the table,” said John. (comma)

Michelle stated, “Dinner will be ready soon.” (period)

John asked, “What’s for dinner?” with a smile. (question mark)

“Wouldn’t you like to know!” said Michelle, smirking. (exclamation mark)

“Holy hell, wo–” John began, before she interrupted him. (dashes)

“Don’t even think about it…” Michelle shot him a warning look. (ellipsis)

A speech tag labels dialogue. Speech tags identify the speaker and occasionally describe their manner of speech. In the following examples, speech tags are in bold text.

Joe answered, “Yes, of course.”

“Why?” asked Chloe.

“Because I said so,” replied Mom.

“Don’t wake up the baby,” whispered Mary.

“Come back here!” he yelled angrily at Mike.

Mike said, “I’ll be back later.”

  • For extended dialogue by a single person that is divided into multiple paragraphs, do not include quotation marks at the end of every paragraph—only insert them at the end of the dialogue in the final paragraph.
  • When switching between more than one person’s spoken dialogue, start a new paragraph for each person’s dialogue, no matter how little they might say.

One exception to the new paragraph/new person rule may include when several people talk at once either in unison or over one another in rapid fire. If a group is speaking the same words in unison, their words would be treated as dialogue from a single person, and speech tags could be used to explain the situation.

  • If several people in the story are talking over one another or saying different things all at once, this can be represented in various ways:
    • Write dialogue for each person in a separate paragraph, identifying each one, and using double quotation marks as usual.
    • Surround each person’s dialogue separately with quotation marks, one after another, in the same paragraph. Do not identify each speaker but refer to them collectively in a speech tag.
    • Describe the situation and dialogue without quoting anyone’s exact words, and without using quotation marks. Refer to the group collectively or identify everyone involved.

Dialogue should allow readers to hear the speaker’s words. If the speaker pronounces a word unusually, this should be indicated in some way by changing the spelling, etc.

  • Words should be used instead of abbreviations or symbols in dialogue.

“Okay, Mister peeerrrrfect,” she responded sarcastically.

“Peez make me a gill-cheese sammitch, mama,” Lucy pleaded.

  • In most cases, numbers in dialogue should be expressed in words instead of numerals.

Exceptions may include four-digit years, long series of numbers, a full telephone number, or product and brand names that include numbers. For a helpful, detailed article about writing numbers in both dialogue and narrative, visit https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/01/13/numbers-in-fiction/. I refer to it whenever I have a question about number rules in writing.

Following are just a few examples of how numbers can be expressed in dialogue.

“I think he was born in sixty-eight.”

“She only paid thirty-five bucks for it.”

“Yesterday, it was over ninety degrees outside.”

“She just called number twenty-two.”

“The shortest player is six foot one and a half.”

“You owe me four hundred and ten dollars.”

“The show starts at seven o’clock at night.”

“I just bought an Xbox 360 for seventy-five dollars.” (Xbox 360 is a product name)

  • Direct internal dialogue is generally indicated with italics, never with quotation marks. Some authors choose to use a different font or style for direct internal dialogue instead of italics. Direct internal dialogue is always expressed in first person because it is stating the exact words that a person is thinking.
  • Indirect internal dialogue is not italicized because it is not stating the exact words that a person is thinking.

She stared in horror at the scene ahead. What the heck was I thinking? she wondered. —direct

He thought of all of the possible scenarios awaiting him. —indirect

I hung up the phone angrily. How dare he? Who does he think he is? —direct

After all of the favors I’d done for her in the past, I thought that she owed me. —indirect

Please let me know in the comments if this article was helpful to you or if you think of any important rules I may have left out. Let’s start a dialogue, shall we?