Here’s When to Use a Hyphen Versus a Dash

Yes, there is a difference.

hypehn vs en dash vs em dashNicole Fornabaio/rd.com

If you’ve ever found yourself confused about the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use each one, 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 separates words. ­­Find out more punctuation mistakes even smart people make.

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 notes that 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.”

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.”

To make a dash on the keyboard, you still use the key to the right of the zero, 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. 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.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.