Grammar

Dashes or Hyphens? They Look the Same, But They’re Not!

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Do you know whether you should be using dashes or hyphens when you write? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish!

I know the image connected with this post is actually a “Do Not Enter” road sign, but given the design, I think it works well for a post about dashes or hyphens.

Both are little horizontal lines that we see every day. But we see more of them than others, and it’s not always easy to know for sure which is which unless we see how they’re used.

So I thought I’d break down the difference. Also, I have to note that the style guide you follow may affect how you use them. I rely on the Associated Press Stylebook professionally. For that reason, I adopt its use as much as I can here. So this is going to be geared more toward AP Style. Still, I think it will sufficiently explain the difference between a dash and a hyphen.

I’m going to take the easier one first.

Hyphens

The hyphen has essentially two main functions. We’re most likely to use a hyphen when we’re connecting compound words.

If we go on a vacation with family, we’ll stop at the hotel lobby for check-in. After we unpack, we might go to the pool with our brother-in-law to get a few rays. His wife might join us, along with their five-year-old son.

Those are just a few examples of nouns and modifiers that require hyphens to join words.

One thing I like about AP Style’s rules on hyphens is that they’re understood to be subjective. In fact, the latest version of the Stylebook says this:

It can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. Think of hyphens as an aid to readers’ comprehension. If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don’t use it.

Over the years, AP Style changed its rules on when to use hyphens in some words. Years ago, email used to be e-mail. African American also used to be hyphenated but is no longer. It was only a couple of years ago that AP Style allowed long-hyphenated words like pre-empted and re-elected to become preempted and reelected. (Some of us have done it long enough that those hyphens are almost automatic. But we’re getting there.)

Dashes

With hyphens out of the way, now we come to dashes. A dash is longer than a hyphen, but that generally doesn’t help all that much. You generally don’t see both in the same sentence all that often. When you do, you’re not likely to spend much time analyzing their length to figure out which is which.

So it comes down to context.

You should also know there are two primary kinds of dashes: the “endash” and the “emdash.” If you pronounce the two phonetically, you will note the sounds of the letters N and M. That’s a clue about how they’re different: the endash, like the letter N, is narrower (or shorter) than the emdash, which, like the letter M, is wider or longer.

To determine the context, length matters.

Endashes

Endashes are supposed to be slightly longer than hyphens and slightly shorter than emdashes. On old manual typewriters (and even on today’s websites), the hyphen and endash were the same character. The emdash is either typed as a special character (—) or as two endashes (–).

Outside of AP Style, you use endashes to express ranges of time or numbers:

  • 1992-1998
  • Pages 4-13
  • 1:00pm-5:00pm

I say outside of AP Style because it doesn’t seem to like that kind of use. It suggests rewriting passages involving ranges of years, and for other numbers, it suggests the word to in place of the hyphen. For that third example, by the way, under AP Style, 1:00pm-5:00pm would be written as “1 p.m. to 5 p.m.”

Emdashes

The emdash has an entirely different purpose. They set off portions of a sentence more dramatically than other types of punctuation like commas, colons or parentheses might:

  • He was in a rush to get home and knew he could get through the express line with his three items — eggs, bacon and milk.

You could accomplish that last sentence with a colon in place of the emdash. But some feel that emdash adds to the sense of urgency. You have to decide for yourself how effective that type of usage might be. It may work better in some sentences than in others.

You can use an emdash to indicate a change of thought or a sudden realization:

  • She knew the odds of winning were against her — no other woman ever had — but she refused to quit.
  • Jason stepped into the dark room reaching for a light switch but — wait, what was that sound?

In the first example, the information set off by emdashes adds parenthetical information that the reader should know. The second sentence is an example of expressing a sudden change of thought.

Emdashes are the easiest to abuse. I catch myself overusing them and I have to go back and rewrite from time to time. When used sparingly, they can be very effective. But when overused, they become tedious fast.

You can also use emdashes to omit information:

  • The man called her a b— and then left the store.
  • The undercover officer gave —— the cash as part of the sting.
  • They could only make out a portion of the worn tombstone: “Beloved father, ———, man of God.”

Grammarly notes that in cases or omitting words, writers sometimes use pairs or triplets of emdashes rather than a single one. I suppose this differentiates from the change of thought, but again, in context, I think the meaning is clear.


So that gives you a look at when you should use dashes or hyphens. No matter how often you use them — or which ones you select — make sure you use them correctly!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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