Worry-free writing: how to use hyphens and dashes

Worry-free writing: how to use hyphens and dashes

What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

Good question – did you even know there was a difference?

Hyphens and dashes are distinct characters on your keyboard and they have separate jobs.
They are also different widths, although depending on the typeface you are using that may not always be really obvious.

What is a hyphen?

OK, indulge me here for the sake of completeness. I know you know what a hyphen is, but let’s just do a spot of revision here!
​A hyphen is a horizontal line that is used to join two words, or parts of words, together, e.g. well-known, co-ordinate, fat-free.
Using a hyphen can be a matter of preference. I used co-ordinate as an example above, but some style guides I work with prefer it to be closed up, without a hyphen: coordinate. Whichever style you prefer, make sure you use it consistently.

How do I make a hyphen?

The hyphen is on the top right of your keyboard, to the right of the number 0. You can also use the minus sign on the numeric keypad, if your keyboard has one.

When do I use a hyphen?

A hyphen is used:
  1. to join a prefix to its word
  2.  in compound words
1. A hyphen is used to join a prefix – such as re, de, anti or non – to its word:
re-apply, de-ice, anti-clockwise, non-negotiable.
It’s worth remembering that, generally, the trend is for prefixes to lose their hyphens, except where it would be confusing.
This is why most people will now write email rather than e-mail (or electronic-mail!), but we would still write re-apply rather than reapply and re-refer rather than rerefer.
2. A hyphen is also used in compound words  such as well-known, part-time or dark-blue – which are used to describe a noun:
a well-known speaker; a part-time worker; a dark-blue uniform.
We don’t need to go into all the ins and outs of using hyphens in compound words here, but note that when the modifier comes after the word it’s describing, you don’t use a hyphen:
the speaker is well known; he works part time; the uniform is dark blue.​
If you’re interested in learning more about this, I recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation – an excellent, easy-to-read book.

What is a dash?

There are two types of dash: 
  • an en dash (–) is wider than a hyphen, roughly the width of a capital N
  • an em dash (—) is twice the width of an en dash, roughly the width of a capital M

How do I make a dash?

The quickest way to make an en dash on a PC is to use the keyboard shortcut:
​ CTRL + the minus sign on the numeric keypad.
This won’t work using the hyphen key – you’ll probably just succeed in shrinking the text size on your screen!
To make an em dash on a PC, use the keyboard shortcut:
CTRL + ALT + the minus sign on the numeric keypad.
If you don’t have a numeric keypad, you can use the insert symbol command in Word:
Insert | Symbol | More Symbols | Special Characters
You can see from the screenshot that there are other useful characters there, such as the ellipsis, and you can also see the assigned shortcut key for each.
If you’re a Mac user, the keyboard shortcut for an en dash is:
Option + Hyphen
And for an em dash it’s:
Option+ Shift + Hyphen
OK, so you’ve got your dashes, but what do you do with them now?

When do I use a dash?

The en dash
​In British English, an en dash is commonly used:
  1. between elements in a range
  2. ​in pairs, to set off additional information
1. In a range, the dash represents to or and:
8.30–12.30 | 2010–17 | Monday–Friday |​ Glasgow–London | pp.68–92
When used in a range, the en dash is always closed, i.e. there is no space either side of it.
2. A pair of en-dashes can be used to set off additional information, or an interruption, in a sentence.
This is called parenthetical use. It works in the same way as a pair of commas or parentheses do in a sentence. Parentheses (plural; the singular is parenthesis) is another word for brackets.
Our parent company – which was founded in 1955 – is based in San Francisco.
Note that if you remove the information inside the dashes, what is left will still make a complete sentence.
If the additional information comes at the end of the sentence, only the first dash is used:
​Visit our show area to see our huge range of sheds – you won’t be disappointed!
When used to set off information, the en dash is always open, i.e. there is a space on either side of it.
The em dash
The em dash is is used much less often in British English (although it is dictated by the Oxford style guide), but it is the norm in American English, where it is used parenthetically.
In this use, the em dash is closed – there is no space between it and the words either side.
Our parent company— which was founded in 1955— is based in San Francisco.
The em dash is also used in dialogue to indicate interrupted speech:
They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—’

But, really, does it matter which one I use?

You might wonder if the distinction between a hyphen and a dash really matters. Does it make any difference?
Well, the world won’t end if you carry on using hyphens for everything, that’s for sure.
But I think a correctly used en dash improves your writing; it creates space and makes the text easier to read.
I think they’re elegant.
I always get a twinge of disappointment when I see a hyphen where an en dash should be. And of course I never fail to be pleased by someone using an en dash.
This isn’t snobbery or a case of ‘I know how to use them and you don’t’.
Before I trained as an editor I had no idea about these differences. We were certainly never taught about them at school. 
But now I do know, and I understand how a text is improved by using hyphens and dashes correctly, I want to convert the world, one person (and one hyphen) at a time!
And now you know about them, why wouldn’t you use them too? Have the satisfaction of knowing that not only is your text easier to read, it also looks more polished. 
You’ll prompt an approving nod of recognition from all the other en dash users out there. Who knows, it could be the tipping point that shifts them from prospects to customers!

Over to you!

What do you think? Do we editors get too worried about subtle differences like this, or do you see their value?
If this is all new information to you, do you think you’ll make an effort to use hyphens and en dashes in the right place now, or is it really not that important to you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – drop me a comment below, or tweet me.

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