Hyphens and Dashes: Clearing Up the Confusion

What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash? Did you even know there was a difference? Lots of people use them interchangeably, but if you want to present a perfect document and stand out from the crowd, you need to understand the difference.

Do You Remember Using Pen and Paper?

It’s not surprising that hyphens and dashes get confused. They look very similar! In handwritten documents they’re virtually indistinguishable. However, there are clear and important differences in the ways that they’re used.

There are actually two types of dash: the en dash (or en rule) and the em dash (or em rule). They take their names from the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ respectively. It’s not usually the case in modern typography, but originally the en dash was the width of a lower case ‘n’ and the em dash was the width of a lower case ‘m’.

Today there are handy shortcuts: on a PC, press the “minus” key on the numeric keypad to produce a hyphen, press the same key with CTRL to insert an en dash and with CTRL+ALT to add an em dash. Even easier, MS Word will usually change hyphens into dashes where appropriate as you type.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          However, beware of the false sense of security that modern technology can give! MS Word will occasionally miss hyphens that should be converted, especially in ranges or if you go back and edit what you’ve written. The best thing is to understand the difference and enter them yourself.

Vive la (Small) Différence

A hyphen (-) is used to join words together to show that they have a combined meaning. This can be a compound noun (e.g. ‘glow-worm’, ‘pick-me-up’, or ‘policy-maker’) or where a prefix is used (e.g. ‘anti-aircraft’, ‘pre-ordained’). Hyphens are also found in compound adjectives that come before a noun (e.g. ‘a well-known actor’). Hyphens are also used to indicate where a long word has been broken in two at the end of a line.

Dashes (– or —) have a few uses. The first is to separate parts of a sentence where they can be used to create a pause or to lead on to the next clause. Dashes can also be used in pairs to separate a clause from the rest of the sentence (similar to how brackets are used). Another use of the dash (in this case only the en dash) is to join together two words that are of equal importance, as in the ‘retailer–customer relationship’ or the ‘London–Brighton railway’. Though remember, if the first word can’t stand alone and it is a prefix then you must use a hyphen (e.g. ‘the Sino-Japanese War’). An en dash can also stand for words such as ‘and’ or ‘to’; and it follows that a dash rather than a hyphen should be used in number or date ranges: 25–50, 1939–45. Other uses of the dash include where a sentence is abruptly broken off, especially in dialogue.

You may be asking why this matters: couldn’t we just use hyphens for all these uses? The answer is that the differences between the hyphen and the dash enable both the writer and the publisher to make subtle but important distinctions in both the sense and the appearance of their text, distinctions that remain important whether in a book or on a website. Showing that you know the difference and how to use them properly will help your document stand out from the crowd.