Punctuation

Stop using the computer like a typewriter: Hyphens and dashes explained

Abandon your typewriter ways!In the typewriter era of the oh-so-distant past, the physical limitations of the typewriter necessitated that we improvise. One of those improvisations was using hyphens to create makeshift dashes—either by typing two hyphens–without surrounding spaces–or by using a single hyphen – with a space before and after.

But professional printers have never been held to this convention; they have always distinguished between the separate appearance and functions of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

With current technology putting any character imaginable at our fingertips, there’s no need to clutter our writing with typewriter-era conventions. Doing so sends the message that we are seriously behind the times in our use of technology, and it subtly undermines the trust our audience has in us.

Not only are hyphens and dashes not interchangeable, there are even two different kinds of dashes. Each mark has a particular purpose, and in just a few short minutes, you can learn how to use each of them correctly.

Hyphen –

The standard keyboard hyphen is used for hyphenating compound words (for example, state-of-the-art technology, part-time employee) as well as words split at the end of a line to avoid an overly-ragged margin. It is incorrect to refer to a hyphen as a dash.

En dash –

An En dash is the width of a lower case “n,” hence the name. The en dash indicates duration, as in 5–7 p.m., 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., and Monday–Thursday. In this usage, spaces before and after are optional.

There are a number of ways to make an en dash in Word.

  1. Use Insert > Symbol > More Symbols > Special Characters and select the en dash (second one down) from the list.
  2. Use the Word-exclusive shortcut of Ctrl+Num -. Hold down the Control key while pressing the minus sign on the numeric keypad. This shortcut also works in Publisher, but it does not work in PowerPoint, Excel, or non-Microsoft applications. It also does not work with the hyphen on the top row of the keyboard.
  3. Use the universal shortcut of Alt-0150 (Option-0150 on a Mac). Hold down the Alt/Option key while typing 0150 on the numeric keypad. The advantage of this shortcut is that it works in most – if not all – programs. It does not, however, work with the standard number keys at the top of the keyboard.
  4. Word will automatically convert a hyphen to an en dash when you type space-hyphen-space between words. The conversion will happen once you’ve typed either a space or a punctuation mark after the word following the en dash.

Em dash —

An Em dash is the width of a lower case “m.” The em dash gives importance to the information following it—much more so than parentheses or comma pairs (in the case of parenthetical material) or single commas, semicolons, and colons. The em dash is used without spaces.

To make an em dash in Word, do one of the following:

  1. Use Insert > Symbol > More Symbols > Special Characters and select the em dash (first one) from the list.
  2. Use the Word-exclusive shortcut of Alt+Ctrl+Num –. Hold down the Alt and Control keys simultaneously while pressing the minus sign on the numeric keypad. Like the en dash, this works in Publisher, but it does not work in PowerPoint or Excel, and it does not work on non-Microsoft applications.
  3. Use the universal shortcut of Alt-0151 (Option-0151 on a Mac). Hold down the Alt key while typing 0151 on the numeric keypad. The advantage of this shortcut is that it works in most—if not all—programs. Again, like the en dash, it does not work with the standard number keys at the top of the keyboard.
  4. Word will automatically convert a hyphen to an em dash when you type hyphen-hyphen (without spaces) between words. The conversion will happen once you’ve typed either a space or a punctuation mark after the word following the em dash.