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Lesson Plan: When to Use a Hyphen

By Trent Lorcher

Remember when we hand wrote our writing assignments and didn't need to know the difference between a hyphen and a dash because the pen stroke looked like either? Those days are gone forever and they're not coming back, so maybe you should check out this lesson plan and learn the difference.

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.

Procedures

  • 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.

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