Dash it all!

by Genevieve Bergeson

In my punctuation pocket, I found three things.

–    This
–   That
The other thing

Are they the same? Did something break when I sat down?


So what have we got here? Two notoriously neglected/abused kinds of punctuation: the hyphen and the dash. But which is which? How do they differ? Let’s get these straight.

Here’s the line-up:

The Hyphen ( – ), alias “Shorty”

1. Makes compound words. They also attach single letters to words to make other words.

Ex. Merry-go-round, mind-boggling, T-shirt, twenty-one

2. Connects words that are split across two lines.

Ex. See, it makes con-


3. Attaches prefixes and suffixes.

Ex. Pre-fall, post-war, cat-like, length-wise.  (In some cases, the dash is starting to fall out of style; for instance, either “length-wise” or “lengthwise” is acceptable.)

Usually, hyphens do not affect meaning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Observe:

  • Kim’s T shirt was all the rage at the preschool staff meeting. (The teachers agreed it would be fun for her to wear when she taught the kids the alphabet.)
  • Kim’s T-shirt was all the rage at the pre-school staff meeting.  (It reminded the teachers of their fantastic summer breaks—soon to be missed once fall term began.)


The Dash ( –, )

Although two hyphens (–) may represent a dash, hyphens and dashes have very different functions.

Em dashes (—) always mark a big pause. They emphasize information by distinctly setting it off. They can also separate appositives—phrases that rename the noun(s) they immediately follow, such as this definition—with internal punctuation. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens without spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to —.

En dashes (–) express ranges in times or dates (and are interchangeable with “to”), e.g., 1775–1787. No drama involved. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens with spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to –.

Hopefully today’s dash of punctuation demonstrates that details do make a difference.

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.

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