When to Use a Hyphen Lesson Plan: The Difference Between a Hyphen and a Dash

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Mystery Food

I taught students Cornell notes. I felt good about myself. Then I read their essays and hung my head in shame. I should have made them take Cornell notes on the difference between a hyphen and a dash. I needed to punish myself, so I walked to the cafeteria and force fed myself the school goulash. The taste knocked me out. When I awoke, there hovered directly over me a robotic hyphen and dash pumping my stomach with a plunger. They then transported me back to my classroom, whacked me on the head with a metal spatula, and knocked me out again.

When I awoke, a “difference between a hyphen and a dash” lesson plan laid on my desk. Unfortunately, the principal fired me because I ate all the goulash and 13 kids went hungry that day and sued the school. I never got to use my lesson plan.

But you can.

When to Use a Hyphen

A hyphen is half the size of a dash. On a word processor it is made by hitting the dash stroke once. Use a hyphen in the following places:

  • in compound numbers between twenty**-**one and ninety**-**nine
  • in spelled out fractions: _one**-**fifteenth_
  • in certain compound nouns: _father**-**in**-**law, great**-**uncle_
  • in compound adjectives used before (not after) a noun: often**-**quoted advice
  • in words with the following prefixes ex, self, great, half, and all: _ex**-**president, self**-**employed_
  • in proper nouns and adjectives with any prefix: _pre**-**Vietnam War_
  • in words that contain the suffix elect or style: _president**-**elect_

When to Use a Dash

A dash is twice the size of a hyphen. On a word processor it is made by hitting the dash stroke twice. There is no space between a dash and the word that follows. On a word processor the two hyphens magically transform into a dash automatically. It’s amazing. Use a dash for the following reasons:

  • an abrupt break in thought: _Today**--**a snowy day**--**we went cross-country skiing_.
  • a long explanatory statement that interrupts the main thought of a sentence: _His class**--**an endless diatribe on the strength of the femine gender in Romeo and Juliet and the weakness of Romeo in a male dominated society**--**put everybody to sleep_.
  • to set off an introductory list: _Austin Carr, Ron Harper, LeBron James, Bingo Smith**--**these are my favorite players_.


  • Instruct students to copy the “When to Use a Hyphen” and “When to Use a Dash” explanation.
  • Discuss the difference between a hyphen and a dash.
  • Write a paragraph on the board or project one on to the board.
  • Give each student a hyphen, easily constructed by drawing a smal line on a chunk of paper with tape or a magnet on the back.
  • Instruct students to come up one by one and insert hyphens in the paragraph.
  • Be sure to tell them that two hyphens = one dash.
  • Make your own paragraph or try mine:
    • The Peruvian Iguana the best loved animal of the South American jungle survives by eating the bark of a weeping willow. Oak, Walnut, Beech those are its secondary foods. One year I’m pretty sure it was pre Argentina winning the world cup a Peruvian Iguana ran for president of the jungle and narrowly defeated Pele and Maradonna and became president elect of the greater Peruvian jungle. The election on account of a little known clause preventing Iguanas and other amphibious like creatures from becoming president elect of a South American jungle is still argued about fifty three and one fourth year later.

Click here for a complete standards based semester curriculum map with lesson plans and links.

This post is part of the series: Mechanics

Use a little creativity and watch your students' writing mechanics improve.

  1. Lesson Plan: How to Use Commas Correctly
  2. Lesson Plan: Using Semicolons
  3. Lesson Plan: Quotation Marks and Punctuation
  4. Lesson Plan: When to Use a Hyphen
  5. The Tragedy of MIsused Apostrophes
  6. Teach Your Class How to Use Parentheses (It’s Really Easy)