Understanding Dashes and Hyphens
UPDATED IN JANUARY 2019
Do you know the difference between a dash and a hyphen? Do you recognize where to use en dashes and em dashes?
If you do, then pass this post on to someone else. Or read it to be sure of your knowledge.
In business writing classes, people regularly call hyphens “dashes.” They will ask, “Does follow up need a dash?” No, follow up never needs a dash. It needs a hyphen—sometimes (when it’s an adjective or a noun).
Below you will find the essentials of hyphens and dashes.
The hyphen is the baby; the en dash, the big brother or sister; and the em dash, the parent. The en dash is the size of a letter n. The em dash is the size of the letter m. Thus, their names.
How to Type It
Hyphen: Just type the hyphen key on your keyboard.
En dash: Insert the en dash as a symbol. In Microsoft Office, click Insert, then Symbol, then the en dash. Or use a shortcut: Click (and hold) CTRL and the minus sign in the numeric keypad.
Reader Paul Kelly noted another easy way to insert an en dash in Microsoft Office: Type a space, a hyphen, a space, and then another word. Your hyphen will change to an en dash (unless you have changed the default settings). If you do not want the spaces, you will need to delete them manually.
Em dash: Type two hyphens, and your software will likely convert them to an em dash. Otherwise, in Microsoft Office, click Insert, then Symbol, then the em dash. Or use a shortcut: Click (and hold) ALT, CTRL and the minus sign in the keypad.
Spacing with en dashes and em dashes: Do not space before or after hyphens and en dashes. Use a space before and after the em dash if you follow The Associated Press Stylebook. Garner’s Modern English Usage recommends that you “consider putting a letter space before and after an em-dash.”
How to Use It
Hyphen: Use it to connect.
Use a hyphen to connect two or more words to make a compound word. Examples:
decision-making skills (In this phrase you are not referring to decision skills or making skills. The hyphen tells readers to connect the two words. It helps them instantly understand your meaning.)