Hyphen vs. Dashes: When to Use and How to Type
We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of writing a brilliant sentence when you find yourself confronted with the ultimate linear dilemma: To use a hyphen, an en dash or an em dash?
The differences might appear subtle, but their usages are distinct:
The hyphen (-), the shortest, is used to join multiple words that function together as a single concept, a.k.a. a compound word.
The en dash (–), a hyphen with a growth spurt, is used to represent the words “to” or “through” when specifying a range.
The em dash (—), the longest and most versatile, is used to act as a more emphatic comma, semicolon, or colon.
When to use hyphens
1. Compound nouns
As language evolves to include more complex things and ideas, new words are needed. Sometimes, these new words are formed by combining two (or more) existing terms, with the combination having an entirely unique meaning. These new compound words can be written open, such as the “sum of its parts”, or linked by hyphens, “sum-of-its-parts”, to avoid ambiguity. As certain compound words become more commonly used, many of the hyphens tend to disappear, forming closed compounds. For example, it wasn’t long before ordering take-out became time-saving takeout.
There are no set in stone rules governing which compound words are open, hyphenated, or closed. So when in doubt, it’s always best to check a dictionary or consult a style guide.
2. Compound modifiers
A compound modifier (or phrasal adjective) is a compound word used to describe a noun that follows it. Most of the time, compound modifiers are made up of an adjective and a noun or participle. Linking these words with hyphens is necessary so that the reader understands they should be taken together as a descriptor.
A man-eating shark (and not a man eating shark)
A well-lit fire
An up-to-date schedule
A sign-up sheet
A frog-killing fungus
Like everything in the English language, there are some exceptions to the rule:
If the compound modifier comes after the noun, omit the hyphen. Example: The fire is well lit.
If the compound modifier begins with an adverb ending in “-ly,” then the hyphen is unnecessary. Example: A strangely dressed individual.
3. Hyphens in numbers
In the rare case that large numbers need to be written out—think the last time you wrote out a personal cheque—a hyphen is required for compound numbers from 21 (twenty-one) to 99 (ninety-nine).
How to type the hyphen
There should never be a space between the hyphen and the words around it.
To insert the hyphen in your texts, simply type the dedicated key on the keyboard—on PC, PC-laptop and Mac.
When to use en dashes
En dashes, so named because they are about the same width as an upper-case “N”, are often confused with hyphens. The en dash is a slightly overgrown variant of the hyphen, and when thinking about the hyphen-dash functional spectrum, the en dash would fall near the middle but a nudge closer to the hyphen side.
The most common usage of an en dash is to replace the words “to” or “through” when indicating a range of values, such as a span of time, dates or numbers.
The Seahawks won 43–8
En dashes are also used to represent a conflict, connection, or direction between two words or compounds. Examples include conflicting sides of an argument (Democrat–Republican debate), connecting a prefix or suffix to an unhyphenated compound (post–Civil War, New York–based), and directional references (Los Angeles–San Diego bus, East–West highway).
How to type the en dash
Like the hyphen, there should never be a space between the en dash and its adjacent content.
To insert an en dash:
For PC, type “ctrl+minus.”
For Mac, press “option+hyphen key.”
For PC-laptop, since you don’t have a numeric pad, you’ll have to use the “Special symbols” menu of your word processor.
When to use em dashes
The em dash—roughly the width of an upper-case “M”—is often referred to as “the long dash”. While the hyphen and en dash have more specific technical purposes, the em dash is quite versatile and the only one that’s a true mark of punctuation. It can act as a more pronounced replacement for commas, semicolons, or colons. It can also set off pauses or interruptions within a text—like parentheses, except with a more emphatic effect that still maintains the natural flow of discourse.
My mother loves chocolate—my father loves vanilla.
The baker needs three things—eggs, cream, and chocolate—to make mousse.
I hate it when I get distra—oh, look at the cute puppy.
How to type the em dash
Unlike hyphens and en dashes, there is no definitive rule on using spaces around em dashes or not. Typically, no spaces are used on either side, but it’s really a matter of style and writer preference. Just be sure to stay consistent and limit their appearance to two em dashes per sentence—otherwise you’re likely to confuse instead of clarify.
To insert an em dash:
For PC, type “alt+ctrl+minus.”
For Mac, press “options+shift+hyphen key.”
For PC-laptop, without numeric keypad, you can type two consecutives hyphens and let your word processor’s autocorrect do its magic.
In a nutshell
Remember, hyphens are short links merging multiple words into one, en dashes are longer spanning links replacing “to” or “through”, and em dashes are punctuation marks that lengthen the emphasis.
But be warned: Now that you see the differences between hyphens and dashes, you’ll never unsee them.
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Kevin Pollock, Writer and Manager of Content at Wix
Born in Canada, raised in America, educated in England, and living in Israel. That means it’s Zed not Zee, miles not kilometers, crisps not chips, and hummus on everything.