There are many differences between the uses for hyphens and dashes. Whether you’re wondering what to use to separate a phrase from the rest of the sentence or you’re trying to figure out the best way to express a number range, read on to learn how to use hyphens and dashes.
There is only one kind of hyphen; however, the hyphen has a lot of uses. It is used for compound modifiers and compound nouns, as well as to separate numbers that aren’t expressing a range.
As mentioned, one use of hyphens is when an adjective or modifier is more than one word long (aka a compound modifier). For example, consider the following:
Mulder is an awkward-looking dude.
“Awkward-looking” is modifying “dude,” and since there are two parts to “awkward-looking,” it’s a compound modifier. An important thing to note is that hyphens are only used when the compound modifier comes before the noun. If the noun comes first, don’t use a hyphen.
Scully’s hair is fire engine red.
In this case, “fire engine red” is the modifier, but the noun “hair” comes first in the sentence.
Hyphens are also used to write compound nouns. Check out the difference between these two examples:
This is a great lab set-up you have here, Agent Scully.
Mulder, can you help me set up this equipment?
In the first sentence, “set-up” is a noun (uses a hyphen). In the second, “set up” is a verb phrase (no hyphen).
Finally, hyphens are used to write numbers that don’t express a range. For example:
- Telephone numbers
- Social security numbers
- Credit card numbers
- Utility and bank account numbers
To write a hyphen, you simply hit the key to the left of the zero (on most standard PC and Mac keyboards).
In addition to hyphens, there are also a couple of dashes that can be used to enhance your writing: en dashes and em dashes.
En Dash (–)
As with hyphens, there are a couple of different uses for en dashes.
The en dash can be used to indicate that a set of numbers is a range. For example, consider this:
The X-Files originally aired 1993–2002.
However, you can’t use an en dash if you have already said “from”; you have to use “from” with “to”:
The X-Files originally aired from 1993 to 2002.
Relationships and Conflicts
En dashes are also used to show a relationship or conflict between two things:
Mulder caught a DC–Rhode Island flight at the last minute.
Did you see the big Mulder–Scully fight on last week’s episode?
Compound Modifiers (sometimes)
Finally, en dashes are sometimes used when writing compound modifiers; however, you only use an en dash when one of the things that makes up the modifier is actually two words long (like “Emmy award”). When this happens the compound modifier should be written with an en dash instead of a hyphen:
Gillian Anderson is an Emmy award–winning actress.
To write an en dash, use ALT 0150 for a PC or Option–hyphen on a Mac.
Em Dash (—)
Em dashes are a form of punctuation that can be used instead of commas, parentheses, or semicolons to show emphasis. Here are examples of each:
When you choose to use an em dash in place of a comma, it’s important to evaluate what sort of comma it is first. Specifically, you would use an em dash to replace the comma that precedes a conjunction joining two independent clauses:
The Cigarette Smoking Man is so creepy—and he should probably have cancer by now.
Emdashes can also be used to replace commas that are used to set off parenthetical phrases.
Similarly, em dashes can be used to replace the parentheses for a parenthetical phrase. Consider the following
Mulder’s motto—trust no one—is also his computer password.
Lastly, an em dash can be used to separate two closely related sentences where a semicolon might have been, such as in the following sentence:
Scully is my favorite character—she’s so clever!
To write an em dash, use ALT 0151 or Shift–Option–hyphen on a Mac.
Until next time, remember, the truth is out there!