Before we get into when not to use hyphens, let’s make sure you know the rules for when you should use them. The only instances in which you should use hyphens ( – ) are within the confines of these rules. (Click the link. Read the rules. Take this quiz when you’re done. Then print out the rules and memorize them!)
Despite these clear rules, misused hyphens are still everywhere! I still see rampant use of hyphens for other purposes — even among professional writers and well-known bloggers — and it. must. stop.
In my proofreading course, I refuse to pass a student if they misuse a hyphen in the first quiz. I’m not kidding. I don’t tell them they missed a hyphen; I just tell them to go back and review Module 2, redo the worksheets, and try again. I don’t care if their quiz score would be 99.9% otherwise. If they don’t know when NOT to use a hyphen, they’re not moving on until they do. Call me harsh, but when you’re taking a course to earn an income by proofreading, don’t you want to make sure you do everything correctly? You know, because your paycheck’s affected by your work quality? I thought so 🙂
Our curriculum includes the difference between an em dash and a hyphen, and in my student group, I’ve made lots of posts regarding how not to use hyphens … yet usually the same day I’ll see someone using a hyphen incorrectly anyway, despite my efforts.
I’ve actually lost sleep over this issue. WHY, WHY, WHY is the hyphen so mistreated and abused? I lie awake some nights agonizing over the ways I’ve seen it erroneously used as some other punctuation mark. I toss and turn — even twitch a little. It’s exhausting. How can I get this concept drilled into more people’s brains?
Enter this blog post. I hope I can eradicate hyphen misuse, one stupid hyphen at a time, with this post. I hope I can help unsuspecting offenders realize they’ve got a bad habit, too — and I hope I can inspire them to break it.
I know you may be thinking, “OMG, Caitlin, get a grip. What’s the big deal? It’s just a hyphen, and it’s just Facebook! (or: It’s just an email!)” Here’s the thing. What if you used hyphens like that when it really matters? What if you’re applying for a scholarship and you throw in a few of these buggers in all the wrong places? What if you’re reaching out to a potential new proofreading client and, through your misuse of hyphens, you don’t even get a response because that client was so put off by your hyphen misuse? Maybe they’re wondering what else you’d miss if they hired you.
Using a hyphen instead of a proper punctuation mark not only indicates you don’t know when to use hyphens, it also indicates you lack a proper understanding of the correct punctuation to use.
THAT is why knowing when NOT to use a hyphen matters.
So without further ranting from me, here’s my list of 6 scenarios where using a hyphen is just plain wrong.
[Precursory note: WordPress auto-converted some of the hyphens in my examples to “en dashes,” a punctuation mark slightly wider than a hyphen, which *may* make them look correct. But even en dashes wouldn’t be correct in our examples, and here’s why.)
Scenario #1: Never use hyphens as commas.
I see this one ALL THE TIME, especially with offsetting parenthetical elements.
Incorrect: Caitlin – who is normally a very calm person – is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.
Note that the spacing does not matter here; the hyphen is still the wrong choice for punctuating this sentence.
Also incorrect: Caitlin-who is normally a very calm person-is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.
See how messed up that looks? “Caitlin-who” and “person-is” are joined together as if they’re hyphenated!
Also incorrect: Caitlin- who is normally a very calm person- is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.
Let’s fix the incorrect example.
Correct: Use commas. Caitlin, who is normally a very calm person, is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.
Correct: Use an em dash. Caitlin — who is normally a very calm person — is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.
(The spacing before and after the em dash, by the way, varies based on the style guide you follow. I’m using WordPress to write this post, which autoconverts a double hyphen to a smooth line, but not all programs do. In this case, the “double hyphen” is fine, but never use a single hyphen.)
Scenario #2: Never use a hyphen in place of a semicolon.
Semicolons are used to separate two complete but related clauses. They should be able to stand separately, but because they’re related, a semicolon is appropriate and helps the reader understand that the second clause expands on the first.
Take a look at this graphic:
You’ll note here, too, that the spacing does not change anything. It’s still a hyphen, and it’s still incorrect.
Correct: I went to the mall; I needed some new shoes.
Correct: I went to the mall. I needed some new shoes.
Scenario #3: Never use hyphens in place of em dashes.
In Number 1, you saw an example of hyphens being used in place of em dashes to offset parenthetical elements. Em dashes are used stylistically and are very versatile. In contrast to hyphens, em dashes can take the place of colons, commas, and parentheses.
Incorrect: We can help you look your best- even if you don’t feel that great.
Incorrect: Toys4U offers tons of fun options for all ages – from infants up through big kids.
Note, again, the spacing does not matter: it’s still a hyphen, and it’s still incorrect.
So let’s fix these…
Correct: We can help you look your best — even if you don’t feel that great.
Correct: Toys4U offers tons of fun options for all ages — from infants up through big kids.
Scenario #4: Never use hyphens in place of colons.
Colons are most often used to precede lists… so if you’re about to list things, don’t use a hyphen! (Unless you’re listing nouns preceded by compound descriptors, that is :-)).
Incorrect: We are a family of three- my husband, me, and our cat.
Incorrect: Here’s my Christmas list-a new bike, a puzzle, and some cash.
Spacing still doesn’t matter. Why? Because it’s still a hyphen, and it’s still incorrect.
(I hope you are seeing the pattern here!!)
Now we fix ’em…
Correct: We are a family of three: my husband, me, and our cat.
Correct: Here’s my Christmas list: a new bike, a puzzle, and some cash.
Scenario #5: Never use hyphens in place of parentheses.
Expanding on one of the correct answers in #1 — parenthetical elements. Let’s look at a few more of these.
Incorrect: Whatever your mom says – even if it’s crazy – just do it.
Incorrect: Around 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve-sometimes a little earlier-we each get to open one gift.
That second one really makes my skin itch for the same reason as in #1: Eve-sometimes and “earlier-we” are NOT hyphenated words!! And in the first example, the tiny little misused hyphen just makes the sentence hard to read.
Here’s how to do it right:
Correct: Whatever your mom says (even if it’s crazy), just do it.
Correct: Around 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve (sometimes a little earlier), we each get to open one gift.
Note that I added a comma after the parentheses because both the example sentences begin with an introductory element. Adding commas after introductory elements makes the sentence flow better.
Scenario #6: Never use hyphens with the word “very” or adverbs ending in -ly.
This one actually gets me sometimes — especially the -ly one. I catch it 99% of the time, though, now that I’ve drilled it into my brain to sound the alarm when I see an -ly word 🙂
Incorrect: I’m a newly-married, happily-employed proofreader.
Incorrect: Have you seen her very-organized closet?
These are easy to fix. Just take out the hyphen!
Correct: I’m a newly married, happily employed proofreader.
Correct: Have you seen her very organized closet?