Hyphens and dashes often look the same, but while they might masquerade as interchangeable symbols, they actually serve totally different purposes.
If knowing the difference between hyphens and dashes was hard enough, did you know there are two types of dashes?
Confused? Then read on.
Hyphens are most commonly used to connect two or more words or numbers into a single entity.
They can be used to join compound words…
or to join numbers…
They can also be used with prefixes when a word may be ambiguous
re-sign (as opposed to resign).
Sometimes word processing programs will automatically hyphenate a long or compound word, if it can’t fit onto the page, however this setting can usually be turned off. You will most commonly see long words hyphenated in printed material (i.e. books and magazines) where space for print is limited and the published needs to utilise every available inch of white space.
Dashes are different and shouldn’t be used interchangeably with the humble hyphen. There are two types of dashes:
The ‘en’-dash (n-dash)
The ‘em’-dash (m-dash).
The en-dash is twice the length of a hyphen and was originally the width of the capital letter ‘N’. (It can be made in Word by holding down CTRL and the subtract key).
The en-dash is a nice little fellow, who likes to unite things together on the page. It is most commonly used to indicate spans of numbers, times and distances. For example:
The en-dash can also link prefixes to words.
non–English speaking background
The em-dash looks similar to the en-dash, except it is three times the length of a hyphen. Originally, it was the width of a capital “M.” (It can be made in Word by holding down CTRL-ALT and the subtract key).
The em-dash performs a totally different function to its brother, en-dash. Where the en-dash unites, the em-dash separates, and is used to separate parts of a sentence, particularly if there is a sudden change in direction of thought, or when emphasis is required. For example:
I drove all the way into the city — you know how much I hate that — only to find out my appointment was for next week!
Em-dashes are often used instead of parentheses (brackets). However, in more formal writing, it is preferable to use parentheses over the em-dash.
Because em-dashes are used for emphasising a particular idea or phrase, you should take care not to overuse them in your writing.
As to whether there should be a space between the words and an em-dash, it’s pretty much up to you. Some style guides say to omit a space and others say to put one in. Just make sure you follow the advice outlined in the style guide you use, and are consistent with how you use it.
If you find it difficult to remember the difference between an en-dash and em-dash the following tip may help.
The en-dash being the shorter one, brings things together, while the longer em-dash tends to lengthen the distance between, or separate the elements.
If you want help sorting out hyphens from dashes, or want someone to do all the writing for you, please contact us. We’d love to help.