Punctuation Marks: The Difference Between Dashes and Hyphens
To the passive reader, it’s a short horizontal line that appears somewhere in a text, usually joining two words together. To a writer, it’s something else entirely, but what? Is it a dash, a hyphen, or a minus sign? More than once, I’ve been pecking away at my keyboard and stopped suddenly when confronted with this versatile and confounding punctuation mark.
When you use these punctuation marks, do you know whether you’re using them as dashes or hyphens?
Many people use dashes and hyphens interchangeably, which is understandable, since most of us use the exact same keyboard character for both dashes and hyphens. However, they are technically two completely different punctuation marks.
Dashes also come in a couple of different formats: the em-dash (long) and the en-dash (short).
This post looks at the following punctuation marks:
A hyphen is used to connect words in order to form a compound. It was also used commonly during the typewriter era to show that a word was broken at a carriage return, but that usage is rarely seen these days. Examples include:
Hyphens are also used to denote prefixes and suffixes when they are not affixed to a base word. Also, certain modifier combinations call for hyphenation.
When two modifiers together modify another word, they are often hyphenated. For example, in the phrase “real-world situations,” the words “real” and “world” are connected with a hyphen. Note that “real” modifies “world” (the world is real) and as a single unit (a hyphenated modifier), the two words together modify “situation.” This is standard practice when one modifier modifies another to form a single modifier to a noun or verb.
Note, however, that adverb-adjective combinations are not normally hyphenated. For example, a “well understood concept” is not hyphenated (“well” is an adverb modifying the adjective “understood”).
There are two types of dashes: the em dash (–) and the en (-) dash.
The Em Dash
This is also called the double dash–and rightly so–because it actually consists of two dashes presented without spacing before or after, and used to evoke emphasis (note that the spacing is up for debate as some style guides and writers include a single space before and after the em dash). This kind of dash is often used to “set off an element added to amplify or to digress from the main clause” (Publication Manual of the APA, 2001, p. 291).
The En Dash
An en dash is really used more like a hyphen because it connects words. This connection forms a compound adjective where each individual word has equal weight. Here are two examples: Did you receive the July-August issue of the publication? Will you be on the San Francisco-New York flight?
Why are they called em and en dashes?
In typesetting, the em dash is the same width as the letter m, while the en dash matches the width of the letter n. It’s interesting to note that technically, a hyphen should be a tad bit shorter than the en dash. However, typewriters and computers only have the one punctuation mark (right above the p key) which must do triple duty (hyphen, em dash, and en dash), so unless you’re a professional typesetter, there’s no need to worry about measuring your marks.
How do you use dashes and hyphens in your writing? Do you have any questions or thoughts to add about punctuation marks in general? Leave a comment.