Dash or Hyphen?

Posted by Kevin Walker on March 22, 2012

I was writing an article the other day when a colleague pointed out that I was using a hyphen when I should have been using a dash. “What are you on about?” I asked, “a dash and a hyphen are the same thing”. No, no no. It turns out I’ve been using a hyphen as a dash for years. Let me explain:

The key you see in the top right of your keyboard - the one you use to make the dash marks you can see in the sentence - should actually only be used for hyphens. A dash is actually different – like the mark in this sentence. In fact, to add to the confusion, there is actually two types of dash—the en-dash and the em-dash that I use in this sentence.
So what does all this mean? Well, it means that there is a Dash and a Hyphen and they should not be confused, and that, when using the dash, you can choose from two different types, the en-dash and the em-dash.

Firstly, the hyphen is used mostly to hyphenate two or more words into new, compound word. For example user-friendly or back-to-back. The hyphen can also be used to split a word into two if the end of the line gets in the way. It can also be used for pre-fix, that is, a kind of a word added in front of a word to change it’s meaning. For example, post-apocalyptic. The hyphen is very useful, and most of us are comfortable hyphenating words. The hyphen is also easy to find on the keyboard, bring in a nice obvious key to the upper right.

Now I’m familiar with the concept of Dashes – I use them in sentences like this. But it turns out it’s really difficult to find the dash on the keyboard. That’s why I’ve been using the hyphen, I thought it was a dash. It turns out, you have to use the ALT key and press some numbers on the keyboard, or use special characters in Word. I found this useful and more in-depth guide to using the keyboard and dashes.

There are also two types of Dash, the en-dash and the em-dash. Basically, the en-dash is shorter and should have a space on either side and the em-dash is longer and should not have any spaces on either side. You can use either, but I like the en-dash, looks nicer than the em-dash. This is my short explanation, but if you want to know more, check out www.dashhyphen.com.