A Guide to the Dash & Hyphen In English: Rules and Errors

What is a Dash and What is a Hyphen?

Dashes and hyphens, while similar in appearance, serve different purposes in writing. Understanding their distinct roles is crucial for proper punctuation.

Dash and Hyphen Examples
Type Example Appearance
Hyphen mother-in-law -
En Dash 10–11 am
Em Dash It was a sunny day—warm and bright.

The names "em dash" and "en dash" come from the width of the dashes in relation to the typeset typography. An "em dash" is approximately the width of a typeset letter "m" in the same font size, which is typically the widest letter. Similarly, an "en dash" is about the width of the letter "m". These typographic measurements ensure consistency across various fonts and sizes.

History of the Dash and Hyphen

The hyphen, with roots dating back to ancient Greece, and the dash, emerging in the 18th century, have played key roles in the evolution of written language. Originally used for connecting words and ideas, their applications have become more nuanced over time.

How You Should Use a Dash and Hyphen

The hyphen and dash, though similar, serve different purposes in writing. Hyphens primarily connect words and divide them at line breaks, while dashes, both em and en, introduce additional or contrasting information.

How Not to Use a Dash and Hyphen

Understanding how not to use these punctuation marks is crucial. Hyphens shouldn't be used to connect unrelated words, and dashes should not be overused, as this can disrupt the flow of writing.

Common Mistakes with the Dash and Hyphen

Common mistakes include confusing hyphens with dashes and spacing errors. Em dashes typically do not have spaces on either side, while en dashes do.

Common Mistakes with the Dash and Hyphen
Mistake Correction
Using a hyphen instead of an em dash He was going - to the store (Incorrect) vs He was going — to the store (Correct)
Incorrect spacing with an en dash 10 - 11 am (Incorrect) vs 10-11 am (Correct)
Overusing dashes It's not - well - very clear (Incorrect) vs It's not very clear (Correct)

Changing Patterns of Use

As language and media evolve, so do the uses of hyphens and dashes. Digital communication has seen a rise in the use of em dashes, while hyphen use is declining with changes in compound word formations.

The Dash and Hyphen in Other Languages

While the fundamental uses of hyphens and dashes are similar across languages, each language has its unique rules and applications.

Use of the Dash and Hyphen in Different Languages
Language Usage
French Uses hyphens in compound words and for prefixes; dashes for dialogue and asides.
German Dashes used similarly to English for parenthetical statements; hyphens prevalent in compound words.
Spanish Hyphens less common; used in some compound nouns. Dashes used for interruptions and asides.
Greek Similar to English in using dashes for additional information or breaks in dialogue.
Russian Hyphens for compound words and word breaks. Dashes, especially the em dash, are used in dialogues and parenthetical statements.
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