What’s The Difference Between a Hyphen and a Dash? New Grammar Rules

Hyphens and dashes are easy to mix up. After all, they’re both horizontal lines that come between words and their difference in size is less than a millimeter. These punctuation marks look similar—often colloquially being referred to as “long lines” or “short lines” in writing—but they are all used differently.

In this article, we will explain the differences in usage along with models so you can use them confidently in your own composition.

What Is A Hyphen?

Hyphens are used to connect two or more words together to create a single adjective that modifies a noun. This helps to make clear, the meaning of the sentence and avoid mix up.

For example, “a well-known actor” includes the compound adjective “well-known,” which modifies the noun “actor.”

According to the MLA Handbook:

“Use a hyphen in a compound adjective beginning with an adverb such as better, best, ill, lower, little, or well when the adjective precedes a noun.”

For example:

  • best-known book
  • ill-informed citizen
  • well-loved celebrity

The MLA Handbook recommends against using a hyphen after any adverb ending in -ly. For instance, “fearfully made” and “thoughtfully eloquent” do not need hyphens.

Hyphens are also used to separate numbers, such as phone numbers and Social Security numbers. They can also separate letters. For example, “My name is Paul, spelled P-A-U-L.”

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When To Use Hyphens

Some compound words, such as self-control are hyphenated. Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine should also be hyphenated when they’re spelled out. But when you’re not sure whether a compound word should have a hyphen or not, check a dictionary or style guide. Hyphenated words gradually become closed compounds (single words with no hyphens) over time. Email instead of e-mail, for example, is increasingly common.

Use a hyphen with compound modifiers (adjective + noun/participle, noun + gerund) before nouns. They act as single units, unlike “big, bright hotel” where “big” and “bright” are modified separately.

The use of a hyphen shows the reader that the words should be taken together as a descriptor for the noun. Most often, compound modifiers are made up of an adjective plus a noun or participle. They’re also commonly composed of a noun plus a gerund.

Here are few examples to note

  • a dog-friendly hotel
  • closed-door meetings
  • a book-loving student
  • an expensive, flower-filled vase (this means that the vase is expensive)
  • an expensive-flower-filled vase (this means that the vase is filled with expensive flowers)

But, remember, a compound modifier only needs a hyphen when it comes before a noun. If it comes after the noun, there’s no need for the hyphen.

the hotel is dog friendly

There’s one other caveat: don’t use a hyphen when you have a compound modifier that consists of an adverb ending in –ly plus a participle or adjective. The –ly is sufficient to show that the compound is a unit of meaning.

  • a highly respected doctor
  • an extremely embarrassing Facebook post
  • a superbly cooked steak

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What Is A Dash?

There are two types of dashes: the em dash and the en dash.

En and em, short and long, dashes are named after the space they take in typesetting. The en dash takes up the space of the letter N and the em dash, the letter M.

We don’t think of typesetting in general writing because word processors do the work for us, but just know the en is short and the em is long.

We use dashes to bring attention to a phrase or indicate that a phrase is additional information.

Each dash is used differently: they are not interchangeable. Let’s look at each in more detail.

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When To Use en Dashes

En dashes, which are about the width of an upper-case N, are often mistaken for hyphens. But, traditionally, en dashes are super hyphens. They’re meant to give you a little extra glue when you have a compound modifier that includes a multi-word element that can’t easily be hyphenated.

It is mainly used between dates to mark a span of time. However, if you have a two-word adjective phrase that must be connected to a noun, an en dash is used instead of a hyphen to create a variant of the compound adjective. When an en dash is inserted, it should not have spaces on either side.

For example, the phrase Elvis Presley–style dance moves uses an en dash because Elvis-Presley-style dance moves are awkward; “Elvis King” isn’t a compound modifier, so adding a hypen to it may look odd. But, keep in mind, that not all readers will notice en dashes or understand what they mean. Sometimes, it’s better to simply reword the phrase.

Elvis King–style dance moves

or: dance moves like Elvis King’s

pre–World War II buildings

or: buildings constructed before World War II

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When To Use em dashes

The em dash (about as wide as an uppercase M), is a punctuation mark used to indicate a pause in a sentence. It’s stronger than a comma but weaker than a period or semicolon.

You can use a pair of em dashes to highlight a special attention to parenthetical information:

The new nurse—who was wearing the same blue scrubs as the old nurse—entered the room with a tray of Jello.

You can use a single em dash like a colon to add explanatory or amplifying information, especially when the information is surprising:

I opened the door, and there she stood—my long-lost sister.

Em dashes can also signal a sudden interruption, particularly in dialogue:

“Wait! I forgot to tell you—”

The door slammed shut between us and I missed whatever she was trying to say.

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En dash vs. Em dash

Here are a few things to note about en and em dashes.

1. Spacing

The idea of using spaces around your em dashes (word—word or word — word) is a matter of choice and style. Whichever style you choose, use it constantly throughout your document.

SEE ALSO: When to Use Italics: When and Why to Use Italics

2. em dashes are not interchangeable with hyphens

Using a single hyphen instead of an em dash can confuse readers and make your writing look untidy. If you’re writing text in a program or on a website where the em dash character is completely unavailable, use two hyphens together (–) to signify an em dash.

En dashes are also used to show ranges of numbers, such as times, page numbers, or scores (I’ll schedule you from 4:30–5:00). But, outside of formal printed publications, this type of en dash is commonly replaced with a simple hyphen.

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What’s the Difference Between a Hyphen vs Dash?

A hyphen’s primary purpose is to link two or more words together. Dashes typically indicate a series, sequence, or they set phrases apart, depending on the type of dash used.

Here’s a quick way to remember the difference: think of the length! A short hyphen connects words, while dashes (em or en) are longer and set things apart.

Once you know the difference and when and why to use hyphens and dashes, you’ll write with confidence and express your meaning effectively to your readers.

FAQs On What’s The Difference Between a Hyphen and a Dash

What are hyphens used for?

Hyphens are always used to connect two separate word elements to form a compound word. Word
elements include standard English words, prefixes, suffixes, single letters, and numbers.

Is en dash longer than a hyphen?

Yes. The en dash is longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em dash (–).

What is an en dash used for?

It is mainly used between dates to mark a span of time. However, if you have a two-word adjective phrase that must be connected to a noun, an en dash is used instead of a hyphen to create a variant of the compound adjective.


While hyphens, dashes, and minus signs may appear similar, they have distinct purposes. Since dashes aren’t always available on keyboards, some mistakenly use hyphens in their place. Not to worry, mixing these up is not a crime but using the correct sign in your writing shows better use of language and a sophisticated writing style.

From connecting words and concepts to setting off information, the right use of hyphens and dashes keeps readers focused on your message.


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