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6 Scenarios Where Using a Hyphen is Just Plain Wrong

What is a Hyphen?

A hyphen (-) is a punctuation mark that helps with joining two or more words together to make one compound word. Compound adjectives, compound modifiers, and compound nouns all need a hyphen between the words to make them grammatically correct. For example, the term “on-the-job training” uses hyphens to illustrate the relationship between the words.

When to Use a Hyphen

Before we get into when not to use hyphens, let’s make sure you know the rules for when you should use them.

You should use a hyphen:

  • When you are creating a compound adjective that does not come before a noun
  • When creating a compound verb
  • When writing unknown compound nouns
  • When telling the ages of people or things
  • To clarify related words
  • If your text shows a range of numbers
  • When using compound numbers
  • Use a hyphen with prefixes when they come before proper nouns or proper adjectives

For more detailed and uncommon uses, you can check out these rules. (Click the link. Read the rules. Take this quiz when you’re done. Then print out the rules and memorize them!)

When to NOT Use Hyphens

You should not use hyphens:

  • If an adverb contains -ly or very
  • If a number also contains a compound adjective
  • If there is more than one proper noun within a compound adjective
  • When you want to replace a comma or semicolon

Despite these clear rules, misused hyphens are still everywhere! I still see rampant use of hyphens with the wrong usage — even among professional writers and well-known bloggers — and it. must. stop.

In our proofreading courses, we are strict about hyphen usage and ask our students to re-take quizzes if they aren’t able to understand right and wrong hyphen usage.

Our curriculum includes the difference between an em dash and a hyphen and, in our student groups, we include plenty of posts about hyphen usage and corrections.

Why Are Hyphens so Important?

We know you may be thinking, “OMG, 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? Or 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.

Enter this blog post. We hope we can eradicate hyphen misuse, one stupid hyphen at a time. And we hope we can help unsuspecting offenders realize they’ve got a bad habit, too — and inspire them to break it.

So without further ranting, here’s our 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. A proper hyphen should be the width of a letter.)

Scenario #1: Never use hyphens as commas.

Never use hyphens as commas

We see this one ALL THE TIME, especially with offsetting parenthetical elements.

Incorrect: Suzie – 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: Suzie-who is normally a very calm person-is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.

See how messed up that looks? “Suzie-who” and “person-is” are joined together as if they’re hyphenated!

Also incorrect: Suzie- who is normally a very calm person- is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.

Let’s fix the incorrect example.

Correct: Use commas. Suzie, who is normally a very calm person, is quite irritated by the misuse of hyphens.

Correct: Use an em dash. Suzie — 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. Google Docs will take three hyphens and auto-convert to an em dash, but some programs won’t. 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.

Never use hyphens in place of a semicolon

Semicolons are used to separate two complete but related clauses. These clauses 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.

For example:

Also Incorrect: I went to the mall- I needed some new shoes.

Just as Incorrect: I went to the mall –I needed some new shoes.

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.

Never use hyphens in place of em dashes.

In Scenario 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 to teens.

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 to teens.

Scenario #4: Never use hyphens in place of colons.

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.

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.

Never use hyphens in place of parenthesis

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.

Never use hyphens with the word "very" or adverbs ending in -ly.

Hyphens can be used to make compound words. But some words don’t need to be joined. This one actually gets us sometimes — especially the -ly one. We catch it 99% of the time.


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?

Want to Learn More about Hyphens?

You can check out our General Proofreading course to learn all about how to use grammar and punctuation marks correctly. The course will also teach you how to use your word-nerd skills to make money as a full-time career or as a side hustle.

Just need a grammar refresh? Grammar Lion has the perfect grammar courses for teachers, writers, or those who just want to be more grammatically correct.

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  1. Thank you, Caitlin! I keep studying these beasts and hope that proper hyphenation will become second nature. It tripped me up this week flying through a rush transcript. I will improve! I must master the art of hyphenation.

    1. Caitlin,

      Thank you for the post. I’m guilty of all scenarios at different times. I will be much more aware of misusing hyphens in the future!


  2. Thank you very much, Caitlin. These hyphen scenarios really helped me realize how much I didn’t really know about when not to use hyphens. I “thought” I knew all about when and when not to use hyphens, but this lesson was an eye-opener! I find this very interesting stuff to learn, especially to improve my proofreading skills.

    1. Caitlin, I have never realized how much it took to really engage in proofreading. This is one course not to ever forget. I am sure to be guilty using incorrect punctuation.
      Thank you for the eye opener.

  3. Great site to which you linked! I thought I was pretty good with hyphens, but I, apparently, still have some things to learn about them.

  4. I got most of them. The only one I think will give me a challenge is the “very” and “ly” ending adverbs rule. But, thanks for the list. It will be good to keep handy as a reminder for any fuzzy slips?

    1. Jane, I had NEVER heard of this rule! I am so glad to have learned it. I would have been very embarrassed had I missed it in a transcript.

  5. Dear Caitlin,

    Thank you so much for this great post! It’s great to be able to enjoy this passion of quality!

  6. Full-time and part-time used to stump me. Now I know to hyphenate when the word precedes a noun, but do not hyphenate when it follows a noun. Ex: She is a part-time student. She attends school part time.

      1. If a transcription shows full-time or part-time, do I accept it regardless of what is preceded or followed by it?

          1. As long as the reporter was consistent, should I even bring it up in order to find out if it is a preference or just a rule she does not know?

      2. It never hurts to ask a reporter’s preference on something in a follow-up email. It could save you a lot of time and guesswork in the long run.

  7. I have to admit, I don’t often use hyphens, and it’s because it is easier to write sentences differently than to remember all of these rules! Thank you for this post. I will study them and, hopefully, become more comfortable with them!

  8. Thanks Caitlin! I was expecting this to be a post about using hyphens with compound adjectives, but this was helpful. If you could share some tips about using hyphens with compound adjectives, that would be great.

  9. Guilty! But this post helps me understand how to get control of my hyphen misuse. Thanks for the lesson!

      1. I really have had to leave my ego at the door for this one. There are some hyphen rule I truly did not know.

        1. I meant to type “rules.” See how careful we must be? Note to self!

  10. Helpful. I cannot figure out the em and en dashes. How do you place them/use them? I know you said a double dash would work, but is that how we are to correct with iAnnotate, using the double dash? I know this seems silly, but it has been driving me nuts. 🙂

    Also, would love to see some more info and help with compound adjectives and compound words, in general. I’m having a hard time figuring out how to know for sure if a word is closed, open, or hyphenated, like “college coursework”/course work (find both in different dictionaries)? These are tripping me up big time.

    1. Em dashes (usually double hyphens), in transcripts, are used chiefly for hesitations/interruptions. You see them when people talk over each other, with false starts, or if someone just abruptly starts a new sentence (changing thoughts). I’ve never seen en dashes in transcripts, so it’s unlikely you’ll come across one. I know what you mean about the compound words 🙂 I always look them up, and if I see it’s okay to be used both ways, I make sure the reporter is consistent with just one way throughout the job.

      1. Is there much involving em/en (l,o,p…oops, sorry) dashes on the WST? Also, why DO they use a space? It seems much neater without them. Is that just stylistic preference or a hard and fast rule?

        1. There is a wide variety of material covered on the WST: a little of this, a little of that. If you have a good overall grasp of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation, you will do fine on the WST. You’ll understand that I can’t answer your question any more concretely than that. 🙂

          There are many preferential things in transcripts, but the spaces around dashes is not one of them. Always use spaces.

  11. Thanks so much for this post, Caitlin! Your tips, plus the grammarbook.com link that you added to your post, really helped me to understand the rules for hyphens. It’s so nice to have clear, concrete hyphen rules! Now I feel like I’ll no longer have to second-guess myself. Thanks again!

  12. Thank you for the post and the link to the hypen website. The hyphen rule is the one rule that gets me stumped all the time. Now, I have more resources to study this punctuation.

  13. Yes, I am confused about the em and en dashes too. And I know they are created differently on Apple computers than they do on Windows. I haven’t gotten my iPad yet, so I’m not sure about iAnnotate. But yes, some help about em and en dashes would be lovely!

  14. Great advice! This is the kind of common sense and old fashioned grammar, drilled into us by the nuns at my elementary school.

  15. Great post, Caitlin. Very helpful. I tend to not use hyphens as much as possible, but I feel much more comfortable with the rules now. You’re the best!

        1. In the US, “Vice President” is not typically hyphenated.

      1. If you saw it hyphenated in a transcript, you could mark it for them to check.

  16. I’m opposite… I hardly ever use hyphens because I don’t know when they should be used! So thanks for the tips — now I know WHEN to use them! (See what I did there?

  17. Hi Caitlyn! I have a question. Is it em dash or en dash? It is shown both ways in this article.

    Also, I am truly enjoying this course! Thank you very much.


  18. Is it acceptable to use commas in the following example?
    Whatever your mom says (even if it’s crazy), just do it.

    So it would be: Whatever your mom says, even if it’s crazy, just do it.

    1. Hi, Ellnank!

      Yep. I would say so. Caitlin refers to these as midsentence side notes (if I remember correctly!), which I think is a perfect way to describe them! The commas are offsetting an element that’s really not necessary to make the sentence make sense. If you took out that part, the sentence would read, “Whatever your mom says, just do it.” If it can be taken out, it’s usually okay to offset it with commas. 🙂

  19. Oh man, the -ly words get me every time. I am really working on those!

  20. There is a hyphen in made up words that end in “-wise,” though; right?
    Such as “educational-wise,” “transportation-wise,” etc.

    1. Hi, Reddhedd!

      Not necessarily. If it aids in readability, it might be permissible, like if it follows a digit. However, Merriam-Webster and Morson’s Rule 164 says that it is generally printed solid. See the examples Merriam-Webster gives here. Scroll down to see it written as a suffix. 🙂

  21. I found this post interesting, but a little confusing at times. I completely agree with all of the incorrect uses of hyphens, as well as the corrections. What bugged me the most about the post actually had very little to do with hyphens, so I feel like a nitpicker by pointing it out, but it is something that I feel I need to address for my own peace of mind. There were several instances in the post that you mentioned a type of dash, but it was spelled two different ways throughout the post: en and em. Never having heard about this type of dash before, I am not entirely sure which spelling is correct, or if it even matters. Help me, please!

    1. Hi, Amanda!

      If you look at the title of this post, you’ll see that it is meant to highlight the improper use of the hyphen, which is why it focused solely on how they are predominantly misused. 🙂

      Also, to clarify, the en dash and the em dash are two separate punctuation marks. I recommend checking out this post to clarify the difference between the two. I hope this helps! 🙂

  22. So, a hyphen is one-third as long and an en dash is two-thirds as long as an em dash?

      1. Now I’m confused. On the grammarbook.com post, it says to use a hyphen.

        “Rule 8a. Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions. But do not hyphenate fractions introduced with a or an.

        More than one-third of registered voters oppose the measure.
        More than a third of registered voters oppose the measure.”

        Is it a style preference, or am I just missing something?

        Interesting post. I can always improve on my hyphens. 🙂

          1. Whew, so many different styles and rules! Thanks for the clarification. 🙂

  23. Thank you for proving me correct on the em dash usage. I’ve been figuratively ripped apart by people who swear that one should use a single dash, no matter what the context.

  24. I thought I knew a lot about punctuation and grammar; I have now been reminded there is always more to learn! However, taking the quiz on hyphens helped me see my instincts are basically correct; I just did’ know why. Thank you, Caitlin!

  25. Well, It sure does feel good, to finally face a weakness. A weakness of uncertainty and try and try to understand not so complicated, when it is explained in the right format with great detail. This is a course that every single high school graduate needs; before getting a diploma. What you have done is very noble. The government contractors need this course, like a headache. LoL. Some of the grant writers as well.

    Thank you, for this brave and outrageous mission.

  26. I needed this lesson! I am a culprit of the misused hyphen!

    Why though, would we use an em dash or en dash in place of a colon, comma, semi colon, etc…, when we could just use those? Is there a rule as to when you use them instead of a comma, for example? Or is it just preference or style choice?

    1. Very much style choice! I use em dashes — like these — all the time in blog posts for emphasis and dramatic effect 😀

  27. “En dash (En rule)
    An en dash or en rule (–) is wider than a hyphen (-) and narrower than an em dash (–). The en dash is neglected by many writers except as a substitute for an em dash, and even then it is increasingly replaced with a hyphen to mark a pause or parenthesis, especially online and, less commonly, in print journalism.”

    Can I just say, after my first (and definitely NOT last time going over this page, I’ll probably do it every day!) I am baffled! Totally! Baffled!

    En dashes, Em dashes…never heard of them before this course (just “dashes”), and the only difference is one is “narrower” than the other? Who measures them? “Narrower” implies it’s width from top to bottom. Whaaaat??? While a hyphen is shorter! By how much??? GAHH! My brain hurts!They certainly didn’t teach us about that in grammar (Hah!) school! I’m seriously wondering if I should go back to school and take some punctuation/grammar courses. So many things are different than what I was taught! It’s freaking me out, Man! PANIC CITY.

    Okay…okay…okay…it’s Monday, this was a heck of a way to start it…bit of an anxiety attack there…sorry. ::Deep Breaths:: But seriously, this is REALLY confusing!

    Ah, that also raises the question. Where does the ellipses, which I myself am overly fond of using, fall into all this? At least I think that’s the proper name for “…”?

  28. In the scenario #3, would semicolons be correct to use in those examples? Are they only used for full sentences?

    1. Semicolons would be incorrect there, but you can make an argument for commas. There are other uses for semicolons other than separating independent clauses, but this isn’t one of them. Grammar Girl has a pretty decent list is you’re just dying to satisfy your semicolon curiosity. 🙂

  29. Hey, maybe I missed this, but when a word is separated at the end of a sentence down to the next line, which mark is used? Just for reference, I assume that doesn’t happen much with legal transcripts.

    1. It doesn’t happen at all in legal transcripts. 🙂

      1. I didn’t think so. However, as an English Major, I am curious exactly what line I was using to seperate the words occasionally when I typed out a paper. Mind you, it seldom happened, usually only with really long words–I took a LOT of Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. Also I read a LOT, can’t sleep without it. So I see it occasionally, and can’t tell if it’s a Hyphen or an En Dash, or something else altogether. I haven’t dealt with this many lines coming at me since I was doing the club scene in my 20s!

  30. All these ads in the blogs, which have become part of the course content, are driving me CRAZY! Wish we could print out the blog post only, with no ads and no comments. Maybe a print button, like some of the other blog posts would help? OK, mind clear now.

  31. I never in my life, have used hyphens or em dashes. Never knew what was their purpose; so thank you so much for the info Caitlin

    Lucero (Sara)

  32. Hyphens!!! For me it’s not so much in using them incorrectly, it’s just not seeing where they belong, so they don’t get put in where they belong. I’m reading the transcript, moving right along, and I see everything except where the hyphen goes! I think, for the most part, I know how to use them. It’s just catching them when they are missing. The darn little boogers.
    I did the quiz you linked and got 12 out of 12 correct. This is thanks to you, Caitlyn, and this course that I’m taking.
    I was quite pleased with my score!

    1. They definitely take practice! But it sounds like you are doing an awesome job! Keep it up!! : )

  33. This was definitely the most confusing lesson for me so far. I will have to study this section quite a bit. The en and em dashes are really tripping me up.

    1. Dashes can be confusing because they’re not used consistently (or usually correctly) in everyday English. Keep working. You can do it!

  34. Oh my goodness, I never knew that hyphens could be so difficult. I have a presentation to do about the hyphens, and I’m not thrilled about the whole process.

    1. Yes! Hyphens can be really tricky. Keep at it; they will get easier the more you practice. 🙂

  35. A lot to digest. I definitely needed this unit!

  36. YAY! I took both hyphen quizzes and scored 100% on both 🙂 This is, of course, after I couldn’t figure out how to get the em dash to show up on another post and just left it like that. I’m sure there will be comments! Would it be appropriate to use “–” as an em dash if it doesn’t auto-correct?

  37. I saw the ” print” button somewhere, but seem to have lost it while going back and forth between web pages (is that hyphenated?!). How do I print the hyphen rules?

    1. I didn’t see a “print” button, either! 🙂 You might just have to do a File->Print of the hyphen page on GrammarBook.com in your browser. Hope that helps!

  38. I have a question in regards to number five; could you use em dashes instead of parentheses?

  39. Well, I am guilty. I will need a lot of practice on how to use hyphens correctly.

    1. On the bright side, at least you know where to focus your studying now! 🙂

  40. Dear Caitlin,

    Like you, I’m an awesome proofreader. Unfortunately I’m not much of a businessman up to this point since I’m 45 and still make a dismally low salary (note that no hyphen was used between “dismally” and “low”). I get tired of seeing the writing of so many people, even highly paid executives, riddled with errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. I have enough tact not to point out people’s errors to them, but the temptation to “play English teacher” is strong. Does good writing really matter anymore in the business world, or do I need to stop being such a “perfectionist” in order to become a more effective businessman?


    1. Good writing DOES matter, especially to people who want to communicate and/or offer quality products and services. Don’t underestimate the value of your skills! 🙂

  41. I love studying grammar rules, and as an English teacher, I am really interested in proofreading to make a living; it would be a joy.

    1. Wonderful! Sounds like proofreading would be a great fit for you! Please click here for more information about our proofreading course and the order form!

  42. Found typo in blog:
    “When you want to replace a common or semicolon”

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

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