The hyphen (-) is the shortest of the bunch, followed by the en-dash (–) and the nearly irrelevant em-dash (—). The em-dash is approximately double the length of the en-dash. It’s easy to remember which goes by which name because the character “m” is a doubled version of the character “n”.
Hyphens are primarily used to form compound words and phrases. If you’re dealing with a compound, you should be hyphenating not employing a dash (there are few exceptions where a dash is technically the correct punctuation to use in a compound; these will be explained in the dash section).
While many compound nouns have smashed into a single word (“wallpaper”), some utilize a hyphen, especially when a preposition is involved (“lily-of-the-valley”, “mother-of-pearl”, “check-in”).
Compound modifiers are almost always hyphenated:
A feel-good movie
A three-bedroom house
A five-year-old child
A well-known researcher
A fat-bottomed paper pusher
Also, keep in mind that the examples above are compound phrases that come before a noun and modify it. Do not use hyphens if the phrase is not serving as an adjective directly attached to the noun. So no hyphens here:
The child is five years old.
The researcher is well known.
A few style guides make the rule more complicated and hyphenate phrases that follow to be verbs, as in both examples above. Most don’t. Don’t worry about the nitpickiness of this rule unless a project requires you to adhere to a style guide that specifically orders you to do so.
Compound Modifiers for Dummies:
Hyphenate the modifier unless it includes an adverb ending in “ly” (“fully equipped kitchen”) or just looks wrong (you would never write “a more-recent addition”).
While not foolproof, this dummy rule will help keep you in the right most of the time.
Compound Modifiers for Pros:
Familiarize yourself with the more detailed rules for compound modifiers so you gain a better gut feeling of what’s correct and what’s incorrect. This Wikipedia page on compound adjectives is a very good source that goes into extensive enough detail to answer most of your questions without flying off into totally indecipherable gibberish.
Should you be so inclined, you can find brain-numbingly technical recursive gibberish on compound modifiers using the magic Google.
En-Dashes and Parenthetical References
The primary use of an en-dash is in parenthetical references:
The Rubik’s Cube Suite – designed to capture the spirit of everyone’s favourite 1970s toy – offers you the chance to lose yourself in its design as if you are caught in the Labyrinth and trying to outrun a painful death at the hands of the Minotaur.
These parenthetical references can be mid-sentence, as above, or at the end of a sentence:
Immerse yourself in the throes of the Inner Child Massage – our most popular treatment.
In many instances, the en-dash is merely a stylistic alternative to parentheses or commas. Whereas parentheses under-emphasize and virtually hide a statement, en-dashes usually impart greater emphasis. They can also be useful in providing clarity when there are already clauses separated by commas within a given sentence.
Never use a hyphen to punctuate parenthetical references. In Microsoft Word the en-dash is automatically formed when you type two hyphens mid-sentence and press ‘Enter’. Always include one space before and after the en-dash when writing a parenthetical reference.
En-Dashes for Ranges and Relationships
The en-dash (not hyphen) should be used for a range of values, such as:
We won 23–7
Notice that in the example above you would read the phrase with the word “to” – “Ages 4 to 5”. (In fact, writing out ranges is this way is generally recommended when the phrase is included in running text – as opposed to stand-alone text on the back of a package or corner of an ad.)
You should also use an en-dash in relationships where you are replacing or implying the word “to”. For example:
A Bangkok–Tokyo flight
Many style guides dictate an en-dash for contrasting and parallel relationships. Examples of contrasting relationships would be:
The France–Germany border
The Cuban–American standoff
Note that “Cuban–American” with an en-dash indicates a contrast. In phrases where one word modifies another, such as “the Cuban-American community”, you use a hyphen. “Cuban” is modifiying “American”.
Similarly, the first few words of the examples below are in parallel relationship to each other. They modify the end word, not each other.
The Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis
The Bose–Einstein condensate
Note that for ranges and relationships, typically no spaces surrounded the dash. Spaces may sometimes be used for reasons of clarity, such as in a range of dates spread across more than one month:
5 August – 6 September
“[The em-dash] belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.”
Elements of Typographical Style, a Canadian style guide
In other words, don’t use them.
The em-dash serves to set off a parenthetical reference, exactly the same function as an en-dash (but the em-dash is usually used with no spaces). While some major style guides still require the use of the em-dash for parentheticals, generally this is dying out.
In dialogue or poetry, the em-dash is used to indicate interruption in speech. You are a copywriter.
Hyphens and Hospitality
Hospitality copywriters spend a lot of time thinking about the bedroom. In fact, you could say they’re experts of the bedroom.
As a general rule, you should hyphenate terms such as “Two-bedroom Suite” and “Three-bedroom Villa”. A double-barreled phrase that precedes a noun acts as a compound adjective and should be hyphenated.
For example, you write:
A three-year-old child
But when the phrase is the object of a verb you write:
He is three years old.
Luxuriate in a two-bedroom pool pavilion.
The pool pavilion offers two bedrooms and is ideal for families.
Often there will be more room-related numbers thrown into the picture – e.g.:
Pretentious-Sanskrit-Name Resort is home to 24 One-Bedroom Garden Villas and 12 Two-Bedroom Pool Villas, all tucked within lush gardens inhabited by whimsical garden gnomes – painted silver. (Because garden gnomes are stupid, but silver garden gnomes are überchic – like you.)
In a sentence like this where you avoid repeating the word “bedroom” over and over:
Choose from two-, three- or four-bedroom condominiums.
… you punctuate it like, well, like that.
Another major hyphen hiccup you will face in hospitality copywriting is the “check-in”/“check in” distinction.
This sentence needs a hyphen:
Check-in is at 2.00pm.
In this sentence it would be wrong:
Check in at 2.00pm, relax and fresh, and then head to the Grand Hideous Ballroom at 3.00pm for Jägermeister and scones.
“Check-in” and “check-out” are nouns. “Check in” and “check out” are verbs.
Memory trick: Think of the command, “Clean up your room.” You would never write: “Clean-up your room.” It just looks weird and it’s totally grammatically wrong.
While it is most correct to hyphenate the bedroom phrases we have been discussing, you will come across non-hyphenated versions as well. Just be consistent. If a brand already has eight properties open and they do not hyphenate, don’t suddenly introduce proper punctuation because you have been hired to work on the ninth property.
(You can probably introduce correct grammar with “check-in”, but the bedroom phrases are more likely to be used as official names of room types or in very prominent copy usage.)
House styles and personal preferences vary when it comes to the bedrooms. Hyphenating will clear up any potential ambiguity and confusion, particularly for educated readers, but don’t overestimate the end-consumer or even the client. They may not know the difference between a hyphen and a hyena.
The smart reader will figure out what you were saying and not judge you too harshly. We promise you: the missing hyphen will be the least egregious punctuation problem they will come across in the course of their day.