Hyphens and dashes are two of the most difficult punctuation marks to tell apart. But knowing the difference between a hyphen and a dash, as well as the different types of dashes, like the en dash and the em dash, is critical to clear, direct writing.
Dashes and hyphens are used for many different things: to join different words together, to indicate inclusion, to create an aside, or even to mimic the cadence of spoken language. Let’s explore the hyphen and the different kinds of dashes.
Hyphen vs. dash
Sometimes, the word “hyphen” is used interchangeably with the word “dash.” But they’re actually separate punctuation marks.
You can spot a hyphen (-) because it’s shorter than an en dash (–) or em dash (—).
Their appearance isn’t the only difference between the hyphen and the dash: they actually convey different meanings to readers.
A hyphen connects parts of a word, or several different words, to form a hyphenated compound word with a blended meaning. But a dash typically signals a pause or a range between two things.
What’s a hyphen?
A hyphen (-) is a short horizontal punctuation mark that’s most often used to join different words together. A hyphen implies a combined meaning or the division of a word; it can also indicate an implied word to follow.
Most modern keyboards have a hyphen key, but they don’t have an en dash or em dash key.
When to use a hyphen in a sentence
A hyphen is used between two or more different words to create a new compound word, or to join a word to a prefix or suffix.
Using a hyphen to form a compound word
You can use a hyphen to create a compound word out of two or more different words. Just use it in place of a space between those words. The new word will combine the meanings of the individual root words.
See how we took two, and even three, words, and combined them with hyphens to create a compound word with a new meaning?
Compound words also include spelled-out numbers, like:
Over time, hyphenated compound words can become so commonplace that they eventually lose the need for the hyphen.
A example of when this happened recently is with the word “Wi-Fi.” The original compound word had a hyphen, but as it became more and more prevalent, it lost the hyphen (and the capital letters) to become the more familiar “wifi.”
An older example of this phenomenon is with the word “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” is familiar to us as a single word without a hyphen, but until as late as the 1950s it was actually spelled with a hyphen: “to-morrow.” Over time, the hyphen disappeared from the spelling.
Using a hyphen with prefixes and suffixes
Prefixes and suffixes are short words that are added to a root word to form a new word. Typically, prefixes and suffixes are words that can’t stand on their own; they require a root word attached to them with a hyphen to make any sense. Prefixes and suffixes don’t always require a hyphen, but including a hyphen is always useful for clarity.
Examples of hyphenated prefixes:
Examples of hyphenated suffixes:
Using a hyphen to indicate an implied word
Sometimes you’ll have two compound words with the same ending close together in a sentence. To avoid sounding repetitive, you can omit the end of the first compound, leaving a bare hyphen to imply the word without repeating it.
He looked at the first-order and third-order effects.
He looked at the first- and third-order effects.
Using a hyphen instead of an em dash
In casual communication, like in email, a hyphen can be used in place of an em dash to indicate an interruption or an aside. This is commonly done because while an em dash is the technically correct punctuation mark to use in those cases, keyboards typically don’t have a dedicated em dash key.
To use a hyphen in place of an em dash in those cases, put a space on either side of the hyphen, or use two hyphens in a row.
It was a quiet evening-just like it always was.
She ate the pasta - but not the vegetables.
His friends--almost all of them--came to the party.
Using a hyphen instead of an en dash
As we’ll discuss later, en dashes are used to indicate a relationship between two things, like a range of numbers. But, like the em dash, there’s no en dash key on your keyboard. Because of this, it’s acceptable to use a hyphen in place of an en dash in casual communication.
He worked a 9-5 job.
She took the Paris-Milan train.
What is an em dash?
An em dash (—) is also known as a “common dash.” It’s much longer than the hyphen, and also longer than the en dash. It’s called an em dash because in traditional typefaces, the em dash is the same length as the capital letter M. It’s probably the most common kind of dash you’ll see, though there are longer dashes available for more niche uses.
An em dash functions similarly to colons, commas, and parentheses: it’s mostly used to indicate an aside, a parenthetical, or an interruption.
When to use an em dash in a sentence
There are a few reasons to use an em dash in a sentence:
1. Em dashes can be used instead of a colon or semicolon
Em dashes can be used to indicate an appositive—that’s a fancy word for “additional information within a sentence”—to make the sentence as a whole clearer. In this way, the em dash functions similarly to a comma or a semicolon.
In other words, em dashes can be used to separate two independent clauses within a single sentence—this allows writers to add more relevant information to the sentence. (See what I just did there?)
He glanced at his shopping list—milk, butter, eggs.
2. Em dashes can be used in place of parentheses
Em dashes can also be used in place of parentheses to direct the focus of the reader to the parenthetical information between the two dashes. This could be anything from examples, to lists, to descriptive phrases, to any other information that you might have also put in parenthesis.
His shopping list—which was scribbled on a torn sheet of paper—was longer than he liked.
3. Em dashes can indicate interrupted dialog or thought
You can use an em dash to indicate an abrupt interruption in a sentence. This can be an interruption in the narration, an interruption in a character’s dialog to make it sound more natural, or any other kind of interruption.
“What the—” stuttered Bob, looking shocked.
How to type an em dash
In most word processing programs, you can create an em dash by typing two consecutive hyphens, and your word processor will typically change them into a single em dash character.
If word processor doesn’t do that, then follow these intructions for your operating system:
On a Mac, press Shift + Option + - (hyphen).
On Windows, hold the Alt key, then type 0151.
On Linux, press Ctrl + Shift + u, then type 2014.
Whether or not you include spaces around an em dash is a matter of preference. AP style, which is the style used by newspapers, dictates that a space go before and after an em dash. However, em dashes are also commonly seen without any spaces on either side. It’s up to you—but whichever style you choose, make sure to be consistent.
What is an en dash?
An en dash (–) is a dash that’s longer than a hyphen (-) but shorter than an em dash (—). Like the em dash, it’s called an en dash because traditionally it’s the same length as a capital N.
When to use an en dash in a sentence
En dashes are far less common than em dashes, and they appear so similar to hyphens that many authors are unfamiliar with when using an en dash is appropriate. Here’s when using en dashes matters:
1. En dashes are used to indicate numerical ranges
When you’re writing about a range between two numbers, use an en dash instead of a hyphen. In these cases, the en dash replaces the words “to,” “up to,” “including,” or “through,” that we can imagine go between the numbers.
The event is from 7–10 p.m. on Friday night.
I’ll be out of the office from August 5–9.
The final score was 85–80.
However, the en dash should never be used to replace the words “from,” “and,” or “between.”
2. En dashes are used in place of “to” to indicate a relationship
If you have two words that you want to connect together, and you could use the word “to” between them, then using an en dash instead of “to” is an option.
She took the Chicago–Milwaukee train.
3. En dashes are used to clarify compound adjectives that contain open compounds
A compound adjective is an adjective formed from two different words, like “pre-Raphaelite” or “post-mortem”. As we described earlier in this article, we use a hyphen to link the two words into a single compound word.
An open compound is an adjective formed from two words that are related, but that aren’t connected with a hyphen. For example, “Revolutionary War” is an open compound because the two words function together as a single unit, but there’s no hyphen connected them–only “open” space.
Now what if we have a compound adjective containing an open compound? For example:
Ben Franklin was an important pre-Revolutionary War figure.
In cases like these, using an en dash instead of a hyphen clarifies that the following words are meant to function as a single unit.
Here’s the same example with an en dash instead of a hyphen:
Ben Franklin was an important pre–Revolutionary War figure.
This is a small detail, but one that can really make your writing look professional and polished.
How to type an en dash
On a Mac, press Option + - (hyphen).
On Windows, hold the Alt key, then type 0150.
On Linux, press Ctrl + Shift + u, then type 2013.
Knowing when to use a hyphen vs. a dash makes your writing shine
Using hyphens and dashes correctly is a small but important detail in any kind writing. Even though there’s no en dash or em dash key on your keyboard, using dashes correctly makes your writing seem professional and considered.
Of course, in casual communication like email or text messages, using hyphens instead is perfectly OK. But when you’re getting your book ready for publication, hyphens alone aren’t going to cut it—and knowing the difference between hyphens and the various dashes is critical to making your book look really polished!