TL;DR – Hyphens (-) join words or parts of words, while dashes — en dash (–) and em dash (—) — indicate ranges or create pauses/emphasis in sentences.
Hyphens and dashes, while visually similar, serve distinct functions in the English language and adhere to specific rules in English grammar. Understanding the distinctions between them aids in clear communication and accurate punctuation.
- To form compound words like “mother-in-law” and “high-quality.”
- To create compound adjectives or compound modifiers before nouns (e.g., “ninety-nine bottles”).
- To avoid ambiguity, separating prefixes or suffixes, or distinguishing between similar terms (e.g., “re-sign” a contract versus “resign” from a job).
- “The blue-green dress was her favorite.”
- “He chose the twenty-one-day trial.”
Note: In formal writing, hyphens have no spaces on either side.
Dashes, often confused with hyphens, are of two types: the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). Unlike hyphenated compound words, dashes are longer and serve unique purposes.
En Dash (–)
Roughly the width of the letter ‘n’, the en dash is primarily used to show ranges or connections.
- Indicating range of numbers or dates (e.g., 1990–2000).
- Connecting related items or compound nouns like “World War II.”
- “The score was 3–2 in favor of the home team.”
- “The Chicago–New York flight was full.”
Note: There’s no spacing around an en dash when showing ranges.
Em Dash (—)
Roughly the width of the letter ‘m’, the em dash can emphasize, parenthetical explanations, or create pauses.
- Highlighting or setting off information within a sentence.
- Representing interruptions or sudden changes in thought.
- “Those shoes—I’ve been looking for them everywhere!”
- “I need three things from the store—eggs, milk, and bread.”
Note: In American English, em dashes lack spaces on either side, while in British English, they usually have spaces. Different style guides, like the Chicago Manual of Style, may have specific recommendations for dash usage.
In conclusion, distinguishing between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes is crucial for clear written communication. Select the right punctuation mark based on the context and adhere to the conventions of your chosen English variety (American or British).
What is an example of a dash and a hyphen?
Below are examples illustrating the use of a hyphen and a dash:
Example with a Hyphen (-)
Purpose: Joining words and parts of words.
- Example Sentence: “The twenty-two-year-old artist sketched a well-known celebrity.”
- Explanation: The hyphen connects “twenty” and “two” to form “twenty-two,” creating a compound adjective that describes the artist’s age. Another hyphen is used to link “well” and “known” in “well-known,” forming a compound adjective describing the celebrity.
Example with a Dash
En Dash (–)
Purpose: Showing ranges or connecting related items.
- Example Sentence: “The store is open Monday–Friday.”
- Explanation: The en dash connects “Monday” and “Friday,” indicating a continuous range of days.
Em Dash (—)
Purpose: Creating a pause or emphasizing information in a sentence.
- Example Sentence: “My grandmother—whom I hadn’t seen in years—surprised me with a visit.”
- Explanation: The em dashes set off the non-essential information “whom I hadn’t seen in years,” providing additional context about the surprise while also creating a pause in the sentence.
It’s vital to select the appropriate punctuation (hyphen, en dash, or em dash) based on your intended meaning and the specific use-case in your sentence.
Published on: 2023-10-03
Updated on: 2023-10-06