What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

Posted on 4 August 2015 by Lucy Gregory

What does a hyphen and a dash look like

-  Hyphen

–  En dash

—  Em dash (The em dash is used in the US and by Oxford University Press but not by other British publishers, and it’s not common in British business writing.)

Many people think it’s a matter of style whether you go for the short line or a longer one. But they’re different punctuation marks and using the wrong one can change your meaning.

Dashes are easier than hyphens, so I’m going to start with those.

When to use an en dash

There are three main uses for an en dash in business writing. You’ll notice in the first two uses below there’s no space either side of the dash. In the third use there is.
1. Date and number ranges


pages 53–67


When writing a range in running text, either write ‘The report used data from 2005 to 2015’ or ‘The report used 2005–2015 data’ but not ‘The report used data from 2005–2015’.
2. Relationships between two parties

The dash takes the place of the word and or to to describe the relationship between parties. You might refer to the Lloyds–TSB merger (or demerger, as is now the case), the Jones–Smith partnership (to show a business arrangement between Mr Jones and Ms Smith, for example) or the UK–France treaty (there have been plenty of those).
3. Instead of commas, brackets or colons – or to suggest an afterthought*

We’re delighted to welcome two new members to the board – Sophie Stephens and Wally Willis.

When Richard called in sick – again – his boss suspected he was interviewing for a new job.

Thanks for inviting me on Friday – it was great to see you again.

Some people think using dashes this way is sloppy writing. However, most publishers are comfortable with it and you’ll see it in all sorts of publications. This is the view of the Oxford University Press:

A pair of dashes expresses a more pronounced break in sentence structure than commas, and draws more attention to the enclosed phrase than brackets.

Even so – to avoid upsetting a pedantic client or manager – I would keep dashes for more casual business writing, like emails and blogs.

*The Oxford University Press and most US publishers would use an em dash without spaces here. Most British publishers use an en dash as I have described, and this is what I recommend if you’re writing in British English.

When to use a hyphen

Pretty much any other time you want to use a dash-like mark in business writing, you’ll need a hyphen.

The rules around hyphens are a whole blog in themselves – in fact I’ve written three. If you want to swot up, check out Hyphens to create new words and phrases, Hyphens with prefixes and Hyphens bits and bobs.

How to create a hyphen and a dash on screen

You probably know where to find the hyphen on your keyboard or touchscreen. Dashes are a little more fiddly.

On Microsoft Word, Office or Outlook: To create an en dash, type word-space-hyphen-space-word. This should create something that looks like ‘word – word’. Delete the spaces as necessary.

To create an em dash, type word-hyphen-hyphen-word. This should create something that looks like ‘word—word’.

On your phone or tablet: Find the hyphen button on your touchscreen and hold it down. It should offer you a range of dashes.