Grammar 9 min read

Hyphen vs. Dash: Size Matters in Punctuation

Hyphens usually join words together while dashes tend to separate words.

In this post, we’ll give you the main differences between the hyphen vs. dash and let you know when to use which.

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Main Takeaways:

  • Hyphens are not the same as dashes.
  • Hyphens are often used to connect two or more words to form compound words or express double-digit numbers.
  • You can substitute an em dash for a comma, colon, or parenthesis to create emphasis. There are two types of dashes: en dashes and em dashes.
  • Dash symbols are longer than hyphens
  • The en dash can be used to express a range of numbers or to denote connections between words.
  • Typically, dashes are written without spaces before and after them.

You might be wondering how to draw the line—literally—in the battle of hyphen vs dash. This three-way clash among punctuation powerhouses pits the hyphen against two types of dashes.

Who emerges victorious? That depends entirely on what you want to accomplish in your sentence.

Hyphens go against not just one but two kinds of dashes. But before we dive into the differences among hyphens and dashes, it’s useful to understand what a dash is.

Hypen vs. en dash and em dash
The hyphen may be shorter in length but it’s just as important as its two punctuation cousins – the en dash and em dash.

Which is Longer: a Hyphen or a Dash?

A dash is a punctuation mark that’s represented by a horizontal line. It may be used to indicate a pause, represent missing letters, or denote connections—and when it comes to dashes, size definitely matters. There are two types of dashes: the em dash and the en dash. The em dash has this name because it’s slightly longer, about the size of the letter M. Similarly, the en dash is slightly shorter and about the size of the N. Dashes are also used in mathematics to represent subtraction.

How Do You Use Dashes in Writing?

When writing, dashes are distinguished by size. The smallest is the hyphen, which is the equivalent of the minus side. It’s found on most keyboards to the immediate right of the zero. Slightly longer than a hyphen, the en dash is the same width as the letter N is. It can be created in most word processors by holding down the ALT key and typing 0150. Spanning the width of the letter M, the em dash is the longest of the dashes. It can be created by holding down the ALT key and typing 0151.

Typically, hyphens and dashes don’t have spaces on either side of them.

But, some style guides do prefer spaces before and after the em dash. The most important thing to remember when writing with dashes is to be consistent.

The Hyphen: Small but Mighty

Although it’s the shortest of these three punctuation marks, the hyphen is no lightweight. Not only is the hyphen is the most common of the dashes, but it also has a multitude of common grammatical uses.

How do you use a Hyphen Correctly?

There are six correct uses of hyphens in writing. Use hyphens to create compound words and to express numbers. You can also use a hyphen to indicate spelled-out words and when dividing one word between two lines of text when there isn’t enough space. In Creative Writing, hyphens help indicate a stammer or the way a character speaks. Using a hyphen can also prevent readers from misinterpreting words by adding emphasis.

Let’s look at each of these uses with examples:

1. Creating Compound Words

You can use Hyphens to link up two or more words that are working in tandem. The result is a single compound word.

He had the most up-to-date information available to help him make an informed decision.
After ending a long-time feud, he became friends with his brother-in-law.

If you’re following a specific style guide or dictionary, it’s a good idea to consult it before hyphenating compound words. Compound words that have been in use for a while are commonly spelled without a hyphen.

2. Expressing Numbers

Hyphens are used when writing out double-digit numbers or fractions.

He gave one-third of the last cookie to each of his friends, keeping none for himself.
She turned eighty-five the year she published her first book.
A hyphen holding a placard containing the words
Hyphens are often used to connect two or more words to form compound words or express double-digit numbers.

3. Indicating Spelled-Out Words

Put them between the letters of a word and hyphens indicate a word that is spelled out letter-by-letter.

Do you want to order P-I-Z-Z-A? I can’t say the word in front of the dog, or he’ll go crazy!

4. Dividing Words Between Two Lines

A hyphen can divide a multi-syllable word between two lines of text. This happens when the line doesn’t contain enough room for the entire word.

The word should always be divided between syllables, and a single-syllable word should never be split.

Example

Hyphen vs dash: A hyphen can be used to divide multi-syllable words.

Prefixes such as all, ex, and self should be joined to words using a hyphen. Suffixes such as elect should also be attached using hyphens.

Her ex-husband had stayed at the all-inclusive resort at the same time as the president-elect.

You can also use hyphens to connect prefixes such as un and pre to capitalized words.

Jake’s family held a pre-Christmas celebration every year since they couldn’t be together on the actual holiday.

5. Indicating a Stammer

When writing dialogue or transcribing verbal communications, hyphens can be used to indicate a stammer.

“I’m s-s-sorry,” she said, forcing the words out.

6. Preventing a Misreading of Words

Hyphens help clarify the meaning of words and prevent misreadings.

Recreation refers to activities that are done for enjoyment. Re-creation means to create something again.

The En Dash: Punctuation’s Middleweight

The en dash is the Goldie Locks dash. It isn’t as short as the hyphen. But, it’s not as long as the em dash.

In the hyphen vs. dash battle, the en dash comes with several grammatical functions.

1. Specifying a Range

Use the en dash to connect things related by distance. Examples include time spans and ranges of numbers.

When you use an en dash this way, it signals that there is a range. It covers all numbers, dates, or times that fall between the two things on either side of the dash.

I bought the January–March edition of my favorite cross stitch magazine. My favorite patterns were on pages 12–14.

2. Denoting Scores

In sports or other games, an en dash helps communicate scores.

His team won in a landslide victory, 44–12.

3. Showing Connections Between Words

The en dash has a slightly more complex job than the hyphen when it comes to showing connections between words. In particular, it may be used to link two words that are already hyphenated, creating a compound adjective.

The groups engaged in a regular pro-choice–pro-life debate, waving signs with opposing sentiments from both sides of the road.

Notice in the second example how pro-choice and pro-life are each hyphenated, while the en dash connects them.

4. Adding Prefixes to Proper Nouns

You can also use the en dash when adding prefixes to proper nouns that include more than one word.

He lived in a post–Great Depression world where times were tough and resources were scarce.
En dash and em dash characters racing each other.
There are two types of dashes: en dashes and em dashes.

Punctuation Powerhouse: The Versatile Em Dash

The em dash is one of the English language‘s punctuation powerhouses. It has a special place in informal writing, where it can take the place of a comma, colon, or parenthesis.

Here are a few ways the multifaceted em dash may be used in a sentence:

1. To Signal a Sentence Break

The em dash can take the place of a comma to signal or emphasize a break in a sentence. This is especially helpful when setting apart clarifying information (known as appositives).

Did you see the little dog—the black and white one—that followed Jessica home from school?

2. To Emphasize the Conclusion of a Sentence

An em dash can replace a colon. This helps emphasize the conclusion of a sentence.

After someone stole his favorite grammar guide, Johnny only wanted one thing—revenge!

3. To Express a Sudden Shift in Thought

Sometimes, a sentence can take an abrupt turn. An em dash helps a reader follow a sudden shift in thought or direction.

I think I’ll take two scoops of the chocolate chip ice cream—no, I just want a piece of strawberry cheesecake.

4. To Show an Interruption

When writing dialogue or transcribing verbal communications, em dashes signal interruptions.

He started to say, “You don’t know anything about—” but she wouldn’t let him finish his sentence.

5. To Connect a List and Its Unifying Idea

When an em dash follows a list, it can provide focus. This helps connect the list to the overall point or idea.

Huskies, Dachsunds, mutts—she never met a dog she didn’t like.

6. To Signify Missing Letters

Em dashes strung together signify an omission.

Two consecutive em dashes indicate missing letters in a word. Three em dashes together represent a missing word.

This technique often helps censor expletives. Standard rules of grammar apply to punctuation that surrounds the missing letters and words.

When Genevieve dropped a can of tomato sauce on her toe, she shouted, “S——t.”

7. To Indicate Parenthetical Information

Em dashes effectively set off parenthetical expressions. These are words or phrases that don’t change a sentence’s primary meaning or grammatical structure.

Last weekend, Billy drove for nine hours—I don’t know what that boy was thinking—just to see his favorite band in concert.

A Grammar Best Practice is that a sentence should have no more than two em dashes for the sake of clarity.

Hyphen vs. Dash: a Split Decision

Dashes in their many forms serve many purposes in formal and informal writing. Choose your dashes wisely, and they can enhance meaning, provide clarity, and create structure in sentences that’s sure to knock-out readers.

Quick Hyphen vs. Dash Grammar Quiz

Hyphen vs. Dash Question #1

Hyphens are the same as dashes.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is FALSE. Hyphens have a shorter length than dashes.

Dash Question #2

Dashes can be used for any of the following except:
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. You can only use a hyphen to create compound words.

Em Dash and En Dash Question #3

Which statement is true?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. The em dash has that name because it’s slightly longer than the en dash. It’s about the size of the letter M.

Hyphen Question #4

Which sentence is grammatically correct?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Hyphens are used when writing out two-digit numbers or fractions.

En Dash Question #5

Which of these is NOT a grammatical function of en dash?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. Hyphens are ideal for indicating a word that is spelled out letter by letter.

Em Dash Question #6

Which sentence is grammatically correct?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Em dashes effectively set off parenthetical expressions.

Read More: When to Use an Em Dash

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Krista Grace Morris

Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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