Hyphens vs. Dashes

Grammar Notes:

Did you know there are different types of dashes?  In fact, there are five different types!  The five types are the hyphen, the minus symbol, the figure dash, the en dash, and the em dash.  Actually, there are more than five types, but you will probably only need to know the rest to amaze (or bore) your friends.

Be aware that many modern fonts will substitute an en dash for both a minus symbol and a figure dash; therefore when writing, your main concern will be to differentiate between the hyphen, then en dash, and the em dash.


A hyphen (‐) is a punctuation mark, and should only be used to break words at the end of a line.  Why hyphenate words?  Sometimes it makes it easier to read; you can hyphenate a word to make it cross into the next line, leaving less “white space” on the page.  Traditionally, words are hyphenated between syllables, and a dictionary will show the syllable breaks in a word.  Note that different dictionaries will show different hyphenation points in certain words, such as “although”.

The En Dash:

The en dash (–) is the most versatile of the dashes; it shows a connection between things. It is the width of the letter “n”. It is used mainly for compound words; however, it can be used to link numbers, like the Figure Dash, or to associate numbers like game scores, dates, and version numbers, or to show a range in values. Compound words are two words that join to make a specific meaning; if taking one word out of a compound word will change the meaning of a sentence, it should be connected with an en dash.

The fast-talking lawyer amazed the jury.

Note in the example above how removing the hyphen will change the sentence to suggest a fast lawyer who talks.

Finally, there is the Em Dash:

The em dash (—) is the width of the letter “m”. It is used to express a sudden change in thought—such as this sentence is demonstrating. It is a stronger break than if parenthesis were used (isn’t that nice?). Two em dashes can be used to show omitted letters (e.g. in swear words). The em dash can also be used to link clauses, similar to a colon or semicolon.

Below are two additional dashes; note that without specialized typesetting (as inside a book) they may not display differently from an en dash on your computer:

Minus symbol:

The minus () is used for, well, a minus symbol.  As in yucky math, which we don’t want to do.

The Figure Dash:

This little guy () is the exact width of a single digit in mono‐spaced fonts. You would use it to separate numbers such as telephone numbers. Unless you are a typographer, you will probably never use this dash.