They may all look like simple horizontal bars, but the dash and the hyphen have different jobs to do in the world of punctuation.
Our article entitled Just doing my job: the helpful hyphen deals with the very helpful job of the hyphen: to eliminate, wherever possible, confusion or ambiguity by linking words which are meant to be read together.
The dash has a different job: to indicate interruptions in a sentence, and to represent ‘from…to’ in ranges. The dash comes in two sizes, the em dash and the en dash. The en dash (–) is longer than the hyphen (-), and the em dash (—) is twice as long as the en dash.
The em dash is used:
- In pairs to show a more pronounced sentence break than commas and brackets (known as a parenthetical dash). You may also see a spaced en dash used in the same way. For example, ‘The perfect cake — if there is such a thing —requires time and patience.’
- To separate a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence. A strong interruption can come in the middle of the sentence or at the end, for example ‘It was the best way to do it — or was it?’
- To indicate part of a sentence broken off abruptly, for example ‘Don’t throw the ball. You might hit me on the—‘.
The em dash should not be overused and certainly no more than one pair should be used in a sentence. The en dash is used:
- In ranges of numbers, for example ‘2001–2005’.
- In other ranges, for example ‘A–Z’, ‘Monday–Friday’ and ‘9:00–5:00’ where it means ‘from…to’ or ‘between…and’.
- Between names of people to show that the names are not hyphenated e.g. ‘the Labour–Conservative alliance’.
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All computers nowadays can produce the full range of hyphens and dashes, and shortcut keys can be set up to produce them. Our proofreaders understand the importance of using hyphens and dashes correctly, to enhance the quality and flow of your written work.