Dash or Hyphen?


There seems to be confusion between the function and definition of a hyphen (-) and a dash (–), and many people I find, especially while speaking, use them interchangeably. And yet while there are some cases of overlap, these two punctuation marks have different purposes in writing that should be better understood. So which should you use: the dash or hyphen?

The Hyphen

In most cases, when I hear people talk about adding “dashes” in writing, they actually want hyphens. The hyphen is a small bar (shorter than even a minus sign) that has several different uses in writing.

*NOTE* A hyphen never has spaces between it. Do not use it like this: jump – start

Usage 1: Hyphens can break single words into parts or join separate words into single words. The most common use of a hyphen is to create hyphenated compound words (a word made up of two or more words), especially when a compound word comes before a noun.

Examples of compound words: Sister-in-law; one-half; over-the-counter

Examples of compound words preceding nouns: Long-distance call; high-speed chase

Why? We use hyphens in this way to prevent confusion. A hyphenated compound word is often clearer and easier to read.

But wait! Not all compound words should be hyphenated. When these open compound words (named such because of the space between the two words) come after a noun, you do not add a hyphen.

Examples of open compound words: The neighborhood was middle class; the teacher is part time; the call is long distance

Usage 2: Using hyphens with compound modifiers. This usage can sometimes overlap with Usage 1. A compound modifier is a compound word that modifies (i.e., more specifically explains) a noun.

Examples of compound modifiers: A full-throated roar; a light-yellow shirt.

Why: If you don’t use a hyphen in these situations, the reader can become confused. Is the roar full in the throat? Is the shirt light in weight?

But wait! There are now those who err on the side of never choosing a hyphen, arguing that meaning can be taken more from the context of the word.

Usage 3: Hyphens can also be used to split names. If someone decides to keep both the family name and also take on the name of the partner, this is a hyphen, not a dash. (Hence, the term “hyphenated names”). This can be used for first names as well.

Examples: Jean-Claude; Zeta-Jones; Pitt-Jolie; Anna-Beth

Why? Some view the hyphen as an indication of equity, and thus want to show an equal preference to both names by its use. It also can assist clarity.

But wait! Of course, there are others who have double last names (or first names) and don’t use hyphens. So again, you just want to make sure you know the person’s preference.

Examples: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Helena Bonham Carter

Usage 4: The hyphen can be used to create prefixes. A prefix is an addition prior to the root of a word.

Examples: Ex-President; pro-choice; re-press

Why? In a few cases, such as re-press, you use the hyphen to again establish clarity. You don’t want to confuse the definition of pressing something again with repression (i.e., to subdue with force). Other times, it’s because you want to use hyphens with proper nouns, or to split apart an unwieldy word.

But wait! This particular usage is one I take a side on. My advice would be to try to avoid hyphens with prefixes when you can get away with it. Many prefixed words (see what I did there?) can be written without a hyphen and I think it bumps the reader less. Often, words lose prefixes depending on the popularity of the period. Words like “prehistoric” or “coworker” or “coordinate” all (in my opinion) work just fine without a hyphen, and so – don’t use one!

The Dash

Okay, we’ve spent some time with the hyphen, so you may be asking yourself—what in the world is the dash? Well, I just used one! A dash has basically one major purpose: to separate a sentence when there’s an interruption or interjection, or an abrupt change in thought.

There are two types of dashes: an en-dash and em-dash. These are easy to remember because the en-dash is shorter, and the same length as the letter ‘n’, while the em-dash is longer, and the same length as the letter ‘m’.

The difference? Spacing and specific functions. When using an en-dash, a space should be placed on either side. When using an em-dash, no space should be used. Also, en-dashes are used to represent a span or range in numbers, dates, or time, or scores.

Examples: 2011-2014; when it was finally delivered—five months overdue—she had already bought a new one.

Why? Okay, I admit it. I love the em-dash. I think it looks cleaner than commas, and is more noticeable than an en-dash. I think it’s simple and elegant.

But wait! That said, you want to be careful not to overuse whatever your preferred choice of punctuation. Too many punctuation marks can bump a reader’s eye or make writing difficult to understand or a chore to read—and no one wants that.

Posted on: July 29, 2014, by : adoylewriter

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