hyphens and dashes

Add a nonbreaking space

Hyphens and dashes look sim­i­lar, but they’re not inter­change­able.

  1. A hyphen appears at the end of a line when a word breaks onto the next line. These hyphens are added and removed auto­mat­i­cally by your word pro­ces­sor’s hyphen­ation fea­ture.

  2. Some mul­ti­part words are spelled with a hyphen (topsy-turvy, cost-effec­tive, bric-a-brac). But a pre­fix is not typ­i­cally fol­lowed with a hyphen (non­profit, not non-profit).

  3. A hyphen is used in phrasal adjec­tives (com­mer­cial-speech restric­tion, estate-plan­ning attor­ney, law-school grades) to ensure clar­ity. Non­pro­fes­sional writ­ers often omit these hyphens. As a pro­fes- sional writer, you should not.

For instance, con­sider the unhy­phen­ated phrase five dol­lar bills. Is five the quan­tity of dol­lar bills, or are the bills each worth five dol­lars? As writ­ten, it sug­gests the for­mer. If you mean the lat­ter, then you’d write five-dol­lar bills.

Dashes come in two sizes—the en dash and the em dash. The em dash (—) is typ­i­cally about as wide as a cap­i­tal H. The en dash ( – ) is about half as wide.

En and em dashes are often approx­i­mated by typ­ing two or three hyphens in a row ( -- or --- ). Don’t do that. Use real dashes.

The en dash has two uses.

  1. It indi­cates a range of val­ues (1880–1912, 116 Cal. App. 4th 330–39, Exhibits A–E). If you open with from, pair it with to instead of an en dash ( from 1880 to 1912, not from 1880–1912).

  2. It denotes a con­nec­tion or con­trast between pairs of words (con­ser­v­a­tive–lib­eral split, Ari­zona–Nevada reci­pro­city, Sar­banes–Oxley Act).