Hyphen or dash?

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Advice Leaflets

Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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A common mistake in word processing, and sometimes (less often) in handwriting, is to confuse a hyphen (-) with a dash ().

So what is the difference? In a normal-sized font on the computer screen, it is not always clear to see. A hyphen is a short mark. It works on a single word, or a pair of words. Sometimes it joins two words together (e.g. to make a compound word like lamp-post or part-time). Sometimes it marks a break, usually at a line ending, where the whole word will not fit onto the line. A HYPHEN HAS NO SPACES, either before or after.

A dash is a longer mark. It is used more as a mark of punctuation for sentences - it always comes (as here) between words. It works to mark an extra thought, or - in pairs - like brackets. Two forms of dash are commonly used, of which the first is more approved in ordinary academic word-processing:

  • The en-dash (in letter-press printing where it is also called the en-rule - this is the mark as wide as the letter '-n-') is best realized with ONE SPACE BEFORE AND ONE AFTER.
  • The em-dash (also em-rule) is the mark as wide as the letter '-m-'. It is best realized with NO SPACES EITHER BEFORE OR AFTER. This is stipulated in the House Rules of some printers and publishers.

To choose hyphen or dash in Microsoft Word:

The program will usually choose the correct mark for you - if you have the right number of spaces. If it misbehaves and chooses the wrong one, you can put it right. To do so:

In older versions of Word:

  1. Select the character you want to change.
  2. Click Insert - Symbol - Special Characters -
  3. Then select hyphen, en-dash or em-dash
  4. Click Insert (or press Enter) -
  5. And then click Close (or press the Escape key)

Many people disagree about which words to hyphenate: see hyphenation.