Hyphens versus DashesWhat'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 HyphensThe 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:
|Name||Punctuation||How To Get One|
|em dash||—||Ctl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad)
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)|
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 HyphenHyphens 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.
(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.
(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?
The Function of the Em DashThe 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.
- It depends on trust — it always has.
- It depends on trust; it always has.
- 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.
(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.
(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 DashThe main function of the en dash ( – ) is to show ranges. For example:
- 10-12 people
Read more about dashes between numbers.
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.