Learning the correct use and the differences between a hyphen and a dash is easy, but you have to pay attention or else it can get confusing much easily.

These two are a type of punctuation and each of them indicates different things. Some of the ways to spot them are by paying attention to their place in a sentence, if they're in between letters, if they're set in the middle of the sentence, and most importantly, their width.

You read correctly, the width of these punctuation signs is important because it will indicate whether they're a dash or a hyphen.

We've created this guide to teach you how to spot these key differences and start using the correct form of punctuation the next time you're writing an essay for your language class.

You can learn more about English grammar in A Quick Guide to English Grammar or, more specifically, learn about the differences between They're, There, and Their.

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If the list of every job you like involves writing, then you need to dominate the English language and learn the correct use of punctuation. Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
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Hyphen

A hyphen is a punctuation mark used to separate syllables or a letter in a word or to join two words together. The use of hyphens is called hyphenation and that little line (-) between words is the hyphen. If you connect two words with the hyphen, you make it clear to readers that the words work together.

You're probably now thinking of hyphenated words you know, but to clear you of all doubts here are some concrete examples:

  • Editor-in-chief
  • Five-year-old
  • Mother-in-law

The most simple of hyphenated words are when they work together to function like one adjective, these are called compound modifiers. In this case, the hyphenated word goes before the noun in the sentence.

Here is an example:

  • We’re looking for a dog-friendly restaurant to eat freely with our three dogs.

If you want to combine a noun, adjective, or adverb with a present participle (words that end in ing) you better use a hyphen to make that unit of meaning clear.

Here is an example:

  • There are some beautiful-looking flowers in the park.

If you feel like a word has a hyphen but aren't sure of it, you can always check your preferred dictionary.

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The final step of a writing job is to cite your sources, one way could be with APA style or citations inside the text be sure to set a style from the beginning. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Dash

The dash, like the hyphen, is another punctuation mark that looks similar to the minus sign and the hyphen but has a different width and use.

There are five occasions on which you can use a dash. To show range, spans, or differentiation, to extend a sentence, to replace parentheses, and to credit a quotation.

To show a range of time like the duration of war or someone's life

For example, WWII lasted for six years (1939–1945).

To show spans

For example, The Paris–London flight got canceled due to bad weather.

To extend a sentence

For example, Love depends on one thing – trust.

In this example, the dash is used instead of using three dots but it can also be used to replace a colon and a semicolon.

To replace the use of parentheses in a sentence

For example, Being in love depends — as my mother used to say — on how much you trust the other person.

In this example, both dashes are used instead of parenthesis, commas, or brackets.

To credit a quotation

For example, "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." — Walt Disney

Finally, there are two types of dashes, the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). They are named like that because, the em dash is the same length as the character "M" (uppercase), and the en dash is the same length as the letter "n" (lowercase).

The en dash is typically used for spans or time range. On the other hand, the em dash is commonly used instead of parenthesis, commas, or when you want to extend the sentence without using the three dots, colon, or semicolon.

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Place a space between a dash and the word, but there are no spaces when using a hyphen, they all become a single word. Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

How to distinguish between a Hyphen and a Dash

The dash, hyphen, and minus sign could all pass as the same. Many even use hyphens instead of dashes because dashes are not featured on every keyboard. Not to worry, mixing these up is not a crime but using the correct sign in your writing shows better use of language and a sophisticated writing style.

Dash

As you already read, the usage of dashes is reserved for complete sentences, to indicate the range between two pieces of information, or to give credit for a quotation. The en and em dashes are long and, depending on the keyboard, you get to a dash by clicking Ctrl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad). Also, a dash commonly has a space between the words it's separating. That space shows that there's no compound word forming with the dash.

Hyphen

On the other hand, the usage of hyphens is to join together two words or to create space in one word between letters. This type of punctuation marks a key difference with the dash because it looks shorter.  On most keyboards, the hyphen sign (-) is the key to the right of "0". Also, a hyphen usually has no spaces once it's put in between two words.

Minus

Finally, the minus sign is the (-) in the numeric pad and it will usually be next to the zero or the plus sign. This sign is not used in writing at all, it's only seen between numbers to create a mathematical problem. If you are confused between the hyphen and the minus sign, just think that the hyphen will be used between letters and the minus between numbers.

For more examples of the different usage of these three signs feel free to check your dictionary or go on Google. If you want to learn their proper use you can search for an English grammar tutor right here on Superprof.

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You don't need to use hyphens if you're citing with APA, these are usually just a list of every single source you used in your text or press release. Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Summary

We hope you found this guide about dashes and hyphens useful. It can be a bit long to read but definitely worth your time once you show your English teacher you dominate the use of dashes and hyphens. You can also set an example for the rest of your classmates by learning the correct use of these two punctuation signs.

If your keyboard doesn't have the dash and you can't allow yourself to pass a hyphen for a dash, you can always google "em" or "en dash", copy and then paste it in your text. It's a little annoying but it does the job and you'll be able to show off your language skills.

For more information on English grammar learn about the Parenthesis and Their Different Uses and the Differences between Adjectives and Adverbs.

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