Here’s When to Use a Hyphen Versus a Dash

Yes, there is a difference.

If you’ve ever found yourself confused about the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use a hyphen, you’re far from alone. When you handwrite them, they probably look exactly the same. They look different on the computer keyboard, sure—but you press the same button on the keyboard to create them, which doesn’t help. In fact, they’re not the same at all; one is mainly used to link words together, while the other mainly separate words. ­­Find out more punctuation mistakes even smart people make.

When to use a hyphen

A hyphen is what appears when you just press the button next to the zero key. In short, a hyphen links words together. It’s what you use to create a compound word, like “can-do” or “self-control,” or name, like Lin-Manuel Miranda. Grammarly also provides another example for when to use a hyphen: You can use a hyphen to turn a pair of words into a modifier, like “a dog-friendly restaurant” or “a remorse-filled apology.” A hyphen is also the symbol you use to write out longer numbers: “twenty-three.”

When to use a dash

A dash (specifically, an em dash) has a totally different purpose. It indicates a significant pause or surprising twist in a sentence. “‘He’s not the mastermind—I am!’ cackled the supervillain” would be an effective use of an em dash. Em dashes, usually in pairs, can also set off a parenthetical phrase or a phrase that you particularly want to emphasize. For instance, “The longest plane flight in the world—which I’m taking in two weeks—lasts more than 18 hours.” You would also use a dash to abruptly cut off a phrase, when writing dialogue, for instance. “‘Do you think he knows we’re—’ she began. ‘Shhh!’ I cut in.” To clear up another confusing English-language distinction, learn the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.”

Keyboard shortcuts: How to make a dash

To make a dash on the keyboard, you use the key to the right of the zero, like you do for a hyphen, but it’s a little more complicated. Option-shift-hyphen will create a dash on a Mac, while on a PC, you can create one by holding down the Alt key and typing “0151.” And some programs, like Microsoft Word, simply automatically form a dash if you type two hyphens in a row, followed by a word and a space.

And, finally, there is another type of dash, called an en dash, that’s in between the two in size. It’s also a little more complicated to type on a keyboard, and it’s most commonly used to express ranges of numbers, mainly in scientific or mathematical writing. But most of the time, writers are just dealing with the differences between an em dash and a hyphen. Now that you’ve got that rule straightened out, brush up on 20 of the most confusing rules in the grammar world.


Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.