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Hyphens and Dashes in Academic Texts: How to Use Them Correctly

A hyphen (-) is a punctuation device that is commonly used to link words in a sentence. It stands apart from other punctuation tools and cannot replace a dash. A dash is usually considerably longer than a hyphen. It is placed in a sentence to indicate a pause or a range of numbers. There are two types of dashes you will come across in an academic text: the en dash (–) and the em dash (—).

When to use hyphens

Some of the words in a sentence that are usually described as compound nouns need to be hyphenated. This is a rule known to students who study academic writing on a daily basis. Tricky situations can arise if the hyphenated adjectives do not belong to a sentence and are placed to add more emphasis to the context. Whichever style of writing you prefer, you have to be careful. Hyphens (-) are also used as conjunctions between two or more words. They connect the words and morph them into a single definition. Hyphens are typically used for constructing compound adjectives. You can see the example of this below:

Wrong❌ Right✔️
The nominated film is an Australian American production. The nominated film is an Australian-American production.
His money gaining tactics have become increasingly well-known. His money-gaining tactics have become increasingly well-known.
Mr. Harriet Kitcher tends to exaggerate the meaning of the conversation. Mr. Harriet-Kitcher tends to exaggerate the meaning of the conversation.
Two liter bottles will be enough to bring orange juice home. Two-liter bottles will be enough to bring orange juice home.

You need to use a hyphen with compound adjectives only when they come before the noun, as was shown in the example above. If the modifier is placed after the noun, the hyphen is omitted:

  • ✔️ The apartment for the family turned out to be cat friendly.
  • ✔️ The service proved to be extremely user friendly after all.

There is also a rule that forbids using a hyphen with a modifier that consists of an adverb that ends in -ly. The use of an adverb as a part of a modifier is enough to render the meaning of the sentence:

  • ✔️ A highly anticipated movie was meant to be filmed last year.
  • ✔️ A fantastically fried chicken was named the dish of the evening.

If the compound adjective is intercepted with words that are not a part of the modifier, you still need to use a hyphen in a sentence:

  • ✔️ This ten- or twenty-minute delay could ruin our plans.
  • ✔️ This well- or ill-meaning romance is going to end us all.

When to use dashes

En dashes are often confused with hyphens. To avoid this, think of en dashes as an extra bit of glue that links your compound adjectives together. Instead of hyphenating the modifier, which would look awkward in academic writing, use an en dash to denote a two-word element in a sentence.

An example of this would be the phrase “Chuck Norris–style fighting”, which is always used with a dash. Putting a hyphen in “Chuck-Norris-style fighting” would look odd. “Chuck Norris” is not a compound, and hyphenating the proper noun is incorrect. In most cases, the en dash is the best option:

Wrong❌ Right✔️
Chuck-Norris-style fighting is known all over the world. Chuck Norris–style fighting is known all over the world.
Frank-Sinatra-style singing gained many supporters. Frank Sinatra–style singing gained many supporters.

En dashes can also be used to replace the phrase that starts with “it is” or “they are”. If this is the case, en dashes can take on the role of colons in a sentence. However, unlike the colons, en dashes are not used to list items or indicate a range:

  • ✔️ There was only one manager in charge—Mrs. Stanton.
  • ✔️ They knew they had to answer to one man—Billie Rogers.

Em dashes are used to emphasize a pause in an academic text. Em dashes are considered to be a less formal equivalent of a semicolon. They carry more meaning than a comma and can bring attention to extra information in a sentence:

  • ✔️ The new guest—who was wearing pajamas and slippers—entered the room.
  • ✔️ The real scientist—who had his photo on the wall—signed the book.

Em dashes can also be used to highlight the situation described in a sentence. They usually indicate surprise or bewilderment in novels and short stories:

  • ✔️ He opened the book, and there it was—the letter from his boss.
  • ✔️ They came towards the door, and there they stood—guests to the party.

Em dashes cannot be replaced with hyphens. Hyphens are typically reserved for colloquial writing and informal speech where there are no limitations to the writing style. Using hyphens instead of dashes in formal writing will make your academic essay look sloppy and unorganized. To avoid this, two hyphens can be used together to form an em dash. Choose a punctuation style that you prefer and maintain it throughout your work to make your essay look polished.

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