Dashes vs. Hyphens

Hyphen: Do not confuse a hyphen with a long dash. A hyphen’s chief function is to merge two or more separate words. For example, in the phrase nice-looking house, the hyphen combines two words, nice and looking, into one compound adjective.

Hyphens are also used to indicate any span or range, such as numbers, years, pages, etc.

Hyphens are covered in rules 14-26.

Hyphens are covered on pages 125-130.

The years 1929-1941 were brutal.

Long Dashes: Long dashes are used to replace commas, semicolons, colons, ellipses, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.

Never have I met such a lovely person—before you.

I pay the bills—she has all the fun.
A semicolon could also be used here.

I need three items at the store—dog food, vegetarian chili, and cheddar cheese.
A colon could also be used here.

My agreement with Fiona is clear—she teaches me French and I teach her German.
Again, a colon would work here.

Please call my agent—Jessica Cohen—about hiring me.
Parentheses or commas would also work here.

I wish you would—oh, never mind.
Ellipses would also work here.

To form a long dash on most PCs, type the first word, then hold down the ALT key while typing 0151 on the numerical pad on the right side of your keyboard.

One method for creating a long dash on a Mac is to press and hold the Shift key, Option key, and minus (hyphen) key.

While there are many more possible uses of the long dash, be sure to curb your temptation to employ this convenient but overused punctuation mark.


Pop Quiz

Which type of mark, a long dash or a hyphen, should be used in each of the following sentences?

1. Alberto attended the University of Colorado (1981-1985).

2. I never thought I’d settle down-until I met you.

3. Kansas City straddles the Kansas-Missouri border.

4. We were in Kansas-Missouri was just across the border.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Alberto attended the University of Colorado (1981-1985). CORRECT

2. I never thought I’d settle down—until I met you. (long dash)

3. Kansas City straddles the Kansas-Missouri border. CORRECT

4. We were in Kansas—Missouri was just across the border. (long dash)

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17 Comments on Dashes vs. Hyphens

17 responses to “Dashes vs. Hyphens”

  1. leftylimbo says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this information. I’d actually come here to research the correct use of hyphens, but it’s always good to brush up on the use of en- and em-dashes. I’d learned the differences years ago when I worked for a Behavioral Research Center, where writing research grant proposals were a constant and very enduring task. Basically, there was zero tolerance for grammatical errors, so everyone on board had a CMOS on their desktop.

    BTW, if anyone needs to know how to create en- and em-dashes on Macs, it’s very simple.

    Just type OPTION+hyphen for an en-dash, and OPTION+SHIFT+hyphen for an em-dash.

    Thanks again for your help!

  2. Kristina B. says:

    I was just on your website, looking at the Hyphens section. Your first example for hyphens has an example using a range of number of people:

    Incorrect: 300—325 people
    Incorrect: 300 – 325 people
    Correct: 300-325 people

    When used for number ranges, an en dash should be used rather than a hyphen. None of the above is actually correct. See below for correct usage. I recommend changing your example.

    Correct: Incorrect: 300-325 people
    Correct: 300–325 people

    • Standard grammar and punctuation references for expressing number ranges offer no universal agreement. The Associated Press Stylebook, for example, uses a hyphen for inclusive number ranges. The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, would use the en dash for them.

      Following AP‘s established lead, we used a hyphen in the “Correct” example in our introduction to rules for using hyphens. We could have used an en dash in the example and been equally correct, particularly among those who refer to CMOS more often. We continue to acknowledge both style books.

      Of equal note, in Rule 6 of the Hyphens Between Words section just below the introductory portion you referred to, we include this statement: “Most publishers use the slightly longer en dash instead of a hyphen in this situation.”

      In sum, you would be correct using either punctuation depending on the style choice you make. The key is to remain consistent with it.

  3. Liberty C. says:

    Regarding Rule 3, if the writer prefers not to, is it okay? What’s the rule?

    • This is a gray area; there is no hard-and-fast rule. Most authorities, including The Chicago Manual of Style, recommend no spaces, while The Associated Press Stylebook prefers spaces. Our recommendation, as shown in Rules 1 and 2 of Dashes, is no spaces around dashes.

  4. Nathan H. says:

    Greetings, Grammar Book editors.

    I was just about to share one of your pages with a colleague, but then I noticed a bit of text that contradicts a rule about hyphens and dashes.

    Question: In your article on Hyphens, it is stated that a hyphen is the correct character to indicate a range between numerals; however, this is incorrect. An en dash should be used for a range between numerals (where the numerals are not the birth and death dates of a human). Is this intentional guidance or is this an error?

    Incorrect: 300—325 people
    Incorrect: 300 – 325 people
    Correct: 300-325 people

    Correct: 300–325 people (En dash, not a hyphen. I believe that this is supported by historical usage as well as The Chicago Manual of Style.)

    Suggestion: Your site clearly displays the beginning of each section with the orange headings, as in “Hyphens Between Words”. Perhaps a section on “Hyphens Between Numerals” would be a good way to highlight the concept of hyphens vs. dashes.

    • If you go to the latest updates to the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation on our website (Hyphens, Rule 6), you will find that we have included en dashes in the discussion. But it is far too strong to use words like “incorrect” and “error” for spans that are stated with hyphens. En dash vs. hyphen is a matter of style and preference. The venerable Associated Press Stylebook does not even acknowledge the en dash, for this or any other purpose.

  5. Peter Anderegg says:

    I think this information may not be accurate. In the category of “dashes” most style manuals, including APA and the Chicago Style Guide talk about 3 glyphs:
    Hyphen: This is the shortest dash and is used for compound words and non-sequential numbers, like a phone number e.g. 555-1212
    En Dash: Basically the width of the letter “n” and used for series, e.g. “The years 1929–1941 were brutal”, not “The years 1929-1941 were brutal” (sic)
    Em Dash: Basically the width of the letter “m” and used to show a change of thought: We were in Kansas—Missouri was just across the border. (note: this text box does not support a true “em” dash here represented by 3 hyphens. Most contemporary fonts include a glyph for the “em” dash, available through Uni Code as U+2014)

  6. CJ Smith says:

    this site really helped but you should be able to DO the quiz

  7. Mary H. says:

    I found your info on dashes, specifically en dashes and em dashes.

    For both en and em you suggested: type in the word, hold down the ALT key while typing 0150 (for en) and 0151 (for em) on the numerical pad on the right side of the keyboard. On my keyboard, this didn’t work for either. However, you also suggested, as an alternative (for em), typing the first word, hitting the hyphen key twice and then typing the second word. This did work. But you didn’t provide a similar move for the en dash. Since this would seem to be the way for me to go, would you mind letting me have the en solution.

    Many thanks (and, by the way, your grammar columns are invaluable).

    • After consideration, we have decided to discontinue differentiating between the en and em dashes. Most word processing programs seem to easily handle hyphens and em dashes. While magazines and books still use en dashes, they are handled differently by different publishers. It’s a minefield and we’d rather leave this matter to the printers. In the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (February 2014), and on our GrammarBook.com website, we are letting the hyphen do the work of the en dash, and the em dash is simply now the dash or long dash.

      We use PCs, and the ALT0150 and 0151 methods work for us. Some Mac users have reported this does not work for them. Do you use a Mac? Unfortunately, we do not have an alternative en dash solution for you.

  8. Lars says:

    In your section on dashes, you say that an em dash is the length of an “m”;
    in fact, it is the length of an “M.”

    • The length of en and em dashes is no longer as clear cut as it may have been in the past. The following is from Wikipedia, but there are several other sources with similar information:

      The en dash, n dash, n-rule, or “nut” (–) is traditionally half the width of an em dash. In modern fonts, the length of the en dash is not standardized, and the en dash is often more than half the width of the em dash. The widths of en and em dashes have also been specified as being equal to those of the upper-case letters N and M respectively, and at other times to the widths of the lower-case letters.

  9. Gordon says:

    Thank you for continuing to send me your newsletter.
    Just a suggestion.
    In your most recent newsletter relating to parentheses you give the following example:

    Example: He finally answered–after taking five minutes to think–that he did not understand the question.

    In my view there should be spaces before and after each Em dash. This avoids the possibility of confusing the Em dashes with hyphens,

    The example should read:

    Example: He finally answered – after taking five minutes to think – that he did not understand the question.

    I hope you find this suggestion constructive.

    • Interestingly enough, we do have an error there but not the one you mention. One other alert reader noticed that we used an en dash instead of an em dash. We have corrected this in our Grammar Blog section of our website and will run a “Correction” alert in next week’s newsletter. Most authorities recommend using no spaces before or after en or em dashes.

      The difference between the two dashes is subtle, but noticeable. I hope that this looks better:
      He finally answered—after taking five minutes to think—that he did not understand the question.
      He finally answered–after taking five minutes to think–that he did not understand the question.

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