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    Hyphens vs. dashes: know the difference

    Hyphens vs. dashes: know the difference

    Hyphens and dashes — they look a lot alike. However, their subtle differences can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

    For instance, do you know which one was used in the first sentence of this article? It’s an em dash.

    In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about hyphens and dashes, including examples of each.

    What’s the difference between dashes and hyphens?

    Hyphens and dashes may look similar, but they serve different purposes. And you’ll need to know how to tell them apart.

    Here’s what the two punctuation marks boil down to:

    Dashes: A dash is used to separate words or groups of words. They essentially stand for a pause or a range. There are two types of dashes: the em dash and the en dash. We’ll go into detail about these two later in this guide.

    Hyphens: A hyphen is a punctuation mark that’s most commonly used to join compound nouns or a compound noun and a gerund into a single word — for example, dog-friendly restaurants or speedy check-ins. A hyphen is its own thing and shouldn’t be interchanged with other dashes.

    Which is longer — a hyphen or a dash?

    A dash is longer than a hyphen. This is true for both em dashes and en dashes. If you see a long, straight line breaking up words in a sentence, then it’s likely a dash and not a hyphen.

    What does a hyphen look like?

    A hyphen is a straight line of punctuation that looks just like this: (-)

    Here’s what a hyphen looks like with actual words: one-fourth

    And used in a sentence: Use the one-fourth cup to measure the flour.

    What does a dash look like?

    As mentioned above, a dash is a bit longer than a hyphen. But em dashes and en dashes look a bit different.

    Here’s what an em dash looks like: (—)

    An em dash used in action looks like this: colors — red.

    And here’s an em dash as part of a sentence: His room is painted two colors — red and white.

    An en dash is a bit shorter and looks a little different in use.

    Here’s what an en dash looks like: (–)

    Included with words or numbers, an en dash looks like: 2008–2012

    And as part of a sentence, here’s what an en dash looks like: She was enrolled in the 2008–2012 class.

    Pro tip: Want to tell the em dash and en dash apart by sight? An em dash is about the same width as the letter M, and the en dash is just about the same width as the letter N.

    When to use hyphens

    There are multiple scenarios in English grammar where hyphens are necessary. Here are the different times you’ll need to use a hyphen and examples of each.

    Hyphens with compound modifiers

    Connecting two words with a hyphen can be done with compound modifiers. Essentially, two words are brought together to act as a single adjective. This only works if the noun comes after the words acting as an adjective.

    Be aware of where the noun is placed so you know if the words need a hyphen. Here’s an example:

    Correct: The kid-friendly restaurant Incorrect: The kid friendly restaurant Correct: The beach is dog-friendly. Incorrect: The beach is dog—friendly

    Another time to skip the hyphen is if the modifier consists of an adjective and an adverb. Here’s an example:

    Correct: The overly confident designer Incorrect: The overly-confident designer

    Hyphens with compound words

    Hyphenated compound words are common compound words with hyphens between them. Some have become closed compounds. Here are some examples:

    Correct: My son-in-law works at the pharmacy. Incorrect: My son in law works at the pharmacy. Correct: She took her daughter to ride the merry-go-round. Incorrect: She took her daughter to ride the merrygoround.

    Hyphens with numbers

    Certain numbers, specifically those between 21 and 99, should be hyphenated when spelled out, such as at the beginning of a sentence

    Correct: Fifty-eight students were enrolled in her class. Incorrect: Fifty eight students were enrolled in her class.

    Whether a number is spelled out or written as digits, you need a hyphen if it’s part of a compound adjective and followed by a noun. Here are a few examples:

    Correct: She gave a 30-minute presentation about grammar rules. Incorrect: She gave a 30 minute presentation about grammar rules. Correct: He wants to learn more about twentieth-century fashion. Incorrect: He wants to learn more about twentieth-century-fashion.

    Hyphens with prefixes

    When you attach the prefixes all, self, or ex to the beginning of a word, you’ll need to use a hyphen.

    Correct: She shares custody of the kids with her ex-husband. Incorrect: She shares custody of the kids with her ex husband.

    When to use an em dash vs. an en dash

    You can’t talk about dashes without mentioning em dashes and en dashes. Em dashes and en dashes have different uses, so we’ll be sharing different examples of each.

    Let’s go with the em dash first.

    Em dash in place of parentheses

    You can add emphasis to parts of your writing by using an em dash in place of parentheses in a sentence.

    Correct: Used textbooks — that is, the ones sold in the campus bookstore — can be bought at a discount. Incorrect: Used textbooks - that is, the ones sold in the campus bookstore - can be bought at a discount.

    Em dash with lists

    An em dash can be used to draw attention to a list. This is best when the sentence begins with the list.

    Correct: Dogs, cats, rabbits — they’re all available for adoption. Incorrect: Dogs, cats, rabbits, they’re all available for adoption.

    Em dash with changes of thought

    Sometimes in a sentence, you’ll need punctuation to indicate a change in direction or thought. This is where the em dash comes into play.

    Correct: Can you pick up the — no, I’ve got it. Incorrect: Can you pick up the-no, I’ve got it.

    Em dash with omissions

    Censored, omitted, or unknown characters can be replaced with an em dash. Here’s how:

    Correct: Mr. C — asked for his name to be left out of the report. Incorrect: Mr. C ---- asked for his name to be left out of the report.

    How to type an em dash using a keyboard shortcut

    Em dash keyboard shortcut

    On a PC, press Ctrl + Alt + Minus. 

    On a Mac, press Shift + Option + Minus.

    Now let’s switch gears and focus on the en dash.

    En dash to indicate a connection

    An en dash can show a connection between words that already use a hyphen or have a two-word phrase as a modifier. Here’s what an en dash looks like in these scenarios:

    Correct: The pro-waffles–pro-cereal best breakfast debate was interesting. Incorrect: The pro-waffles-pro-cereal best breakfast debate was interesting.

    En dash with numbers or time

    The en dash is typically used to show a range of numbers or time. Here are a couple of examples.

    Correct: The article is featured on pages 10–14. Incorrect: The article is featured on pages 10-14.

    Correct: He was enrolled from 2020–2021. Incorrect: He was enrolled from 2020 – 2021.

    How to type an en dash using a keyboard shortcut

    On a PC, press Ctrl + Minus. On a Mac, press Option + Minus.

    Dashes and hyphens are easy to mix up. The best way to remember when to use each one is by practicing. Keep writing, and you’ll master hyphens and dashes in no time!

    Level up your writing game with Writer. Start a free trial and customize your usage of hyphens and dashes in the styleguide.