Hyphens versus Dashes (with Examples)

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Hyphens versus Dashes

What's the difference between a hyphen and dash? Dashes and hyphens look really similar, but they have very different functions in writing.

In truth, you could use a hyphen (the key to the right of the 0) every time and only the strictest of grammar pedants would highlight that your hyphen ought to have been a dash. However, if you did that, you'd be missing an opportunity to showcase your writing skills and, particularly for those times when the longest dash (the em dash) ought to be used, you'd be diminishing the clarity of your writing too.

Types of Dashes and Hyphens

The four main dash-like characters are a hyphen, an em dash, an en dash, and a minus sign. Here they are ordered from the longest to the shortest:

NamePunctuationHow To Get One
em dash Ctl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad)
or
Alt + 0151
minus sign minus (on the numeric pad)
hyphen- - (the key to the right of "0")
en dash Ctl + minus (on the numeric pad)
or
Alt + 0150

When using normal-sized fonts, the only one that stands out is the em dash. The others are largely indistinguishable from each other.

The Function of the Hyphen

Hyphens are joiners. There are never spaces around a hyphen.

(1) Hyphens join the words in a compound adjective. For example:
  • He owns a three-seater aircraft.
  • Are these free-range eggs?
  • It is a high-quality hotel.
Read more about hyphens in compound adjectives.

(2) Hyphens join the words in a compound noun. For example:
  • I need some cooking-oil.
  • I was just a passer-by.
  • The ice-axe broke.
Read more about hyphens in compound nouns.

(3) Hyphens join some prefixes to words. For example:
  • It is visible under ultra-violet light.
  • Please re-evaluate the situation.
  • Would you like me to re-press the shirt?
Read more about hyphens with prefixes.

The Function of the Em Dash

The em dash ( — ) is usually an alternative to another punctuation mark. For example:

(1) Em dashes can replace colons. For example:
  • It depends on one thing — trust.
  • It depends on one thing: trust.
(2) Em dashes can replace semicolons. For example:
  • It depends on trust — it always has.
  • It depends on trust; it always has.
(3) Em dashes can replace three dots used a pause for effect. For example:
  • Her credit card was stolen in London and used 8 hours later — in Bangkok.
  • Her credit card was stolen in London and used 8 hours later in Bangkok.
Read more about using dashes instead of colons, semicolons, and three dots.

(4) Em dashes can replace brackets and commas used for parenthesis. For example:
  • It depends — as my mother used to say — on trust.
  • It depends, as my mother used to say, on trust.
  • It depends (as my mother used to say) on trust.
Read more about your choices of parenthetical punctuation.

(5) Em dashes can replace brackets to credit a quotation. For example:
  • "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils." — Louis Hector Berlioz
  • "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils." (Louis Hector Berlioz)

The Function of the En Dash

The main function of the en dash ( – ) is to show ranges. For example:
  • 1130–1300
  • Saturday–Monday
  • 10-12 people
Read more about dashes between dates.
Read more about dashes between numbers.
NOWADAYS, IT'S SAFE TO USE HYPHENS IN RANGES

Hyphens are not meant to be used for ranges (e.g., 10-12, 1967- 1971). Dashes are used for this purpose. However, given that the hyphen is so easy to find on a keyboard, hyphens have become acceptable for ranges. Only a very strict grammar pedant would pull you up for using hyphens. If this were to happen, you could make a good case for the pedant being out of date.



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