dashes and hyphens

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.

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.

When you use these punctuation marks, do you know whether you’re using them as dashes or hyphens?

This post looks at the following punctuation marks:

  • Hyphens
  • Dashes
  • Em-dashes
  • En-dashes


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:

  • ten-year-old
  • merry-go-round
  • editor-in-chief
  • co-worker
  • e-book

Hyphens are also used to denote prefixes and suffixes when they are not affixed to a base word. An example would be re- or -ed.

Hyphenated Modifiers

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 without spacing before or after either one. Do note that the spacing is up for debate as some style guides and writers include a single space before and after the em dash, especially in online publishing due to issues with how browsers read and display certain punctuation marks.

The em dash is used to evoke emphasis or 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 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.

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