OC’s Guide to Getting it Right: Hyphen Versus Dash

Published: September 18, 2023

by Justin Difazzio

Over our years of editing copy, whether for web or print, we’ve seen our share of errors. However, in all the there-their-they’re errors and “defiantly” in place of “definitely,” we noticed a trend. It seems we could all use a refresher on hyphens versus dashes, what they are, and when to use them. Hopefully these guidelines can help your copy sparkle a little brighter out there in the free-for-all of internet copy.

sign using a hyphen to break a line up

What’s a Hyphen?

Let’s start with the basics. A hyphen is a little horizontal line with a big job. Several jobs, actually.

Broken Lines

You’ll most often see it in use at the end of a line of text where one word is broken into two lines. It’s a space saving method and allows for text to more easily conform to boundaries set by a page, box, or shaped area. This example is mostly used in printed media, but it can be used in online text, especially with justified margins.

Writing Numbers and Fractions

You may not know that a hyphen is used when writing numbers and fractions, as well. So writing 198 becomes “one hundred ninety-eight,” and writing ⅕ become one-fifth. This is a usage that is on the way out, as language trends toward valuing being understandable rather than textbook correct.

Compound Modifiers

That brings us to the hyphen’s arguably most important job: being used to clarify what adjectives actually go together when describing a noun. A big-ass canyon is very different from a big ass canyon. With a hyphen, you realize that the descriptors are working together to describe the canyon, which is very large. Without it, you’re picturing the dent you leave when you get up off the sofa.

The part that most people seem to miss, though, is that these hyphens only appear when the compound adjective is followed by a noun. So you can have a “fresh-faced intern”, but if “that intern is fresh faced,” they need no hyphen. The same is true of “well,” another case which seems to trip people up. You can be a “well-respected man,” but if “that man is well respected,” there’s no need for a hyphen.

Lastly, this hyphen never appears with adverbs formed with -ly. So if someone is a recently married man, no hyphen. Remember, “-LY and the hyphens die.”

Specific Compound Nouns

And lastly on the subject of hyphens, we have the compound noun. These are extra tricky, as they don’t seem to follow any real cut and dried rules. We just know what they are and use hyphens. Words like “mother-in-law” and “cul-de-sac” follow this form. If you’re in doubt, consult a dictionary.

Fun fact: these tend to be the same words that follow a weird pluralization rule, too, where the plural becomes “mothers-in-law” or “culs-de-sac” instead of putting the s at the end of the last word. Language is strange and fascinating.

miniature version of Rodan's Thinker

What’s a Dash?

A dash is just a longer hyphen, at its core. They’re also way easier to use because they have very few rules. The tricky thing is knowing when to use each dash. Yes, that’s right—there are two different kinds: en dashes and em dashes

En Dash

Firstly, there’s the en dash. It’s called the en dash because it’s approximately the size of the letter n in typesetting. The en dash is used for denoting range. That’s it. So if you’re having a bake sale from 10–2, you would use an en dash. If you thought the hike might be 5–7 miles, en dash again.

And before you go stringing a bunch of hyphens together, here’s your keyboard shortcut:

  • Option + Minus keys on a Mac,
  • Control + Minus keys on a PC,
  • And on a mobile device, tap and hold on the hyphen and select it from the pop up box.

Em Dash

By now you probably realize that an em dash is the length of an m in typesetting. Look at you, using deductive logic! The em dash is the one you’re going to see more often, probably, as it serves as a sort of multi-tool in writing. It is often used like a comma, parenthesis, or a colon to set off extra information in a sentence—like this. As you can see, there isn’t a space before or after it—there never is.

Some programs will turn two hyphens into a dash automatically, but don’t rely on them to do it because they’re not consistent. Instead, use these shortcuts:

  • Option + Shift + Minus on a Mac,
  • Control + Alt + Minus on a PC
  • And on a mobile device, tap and hold the hyphen and select it from the pop up box.

blue question mark on a pink background

There you have it. That’s everything you need to navigate the oft-confusing world of hyphens, the 4–6 difficulty level of en dashes, and the many uses of—you guessed it—the em dash. Just know that rules are often updated as usages shift, so check a current punctuation guide if you’re not sure about something. And remember, it’s not about beating people over the head with rules—it’s about conquering ambiguity and making sure that your intended meaning reaches your audience.