197 - Hyphens and dashes

How should we use dashes and hyphens? I accepted opinion relatively recently and went through all these pages swapping the space-bracketed hyphen - this one, for a long dash—this one. I notice, though that my previous habit - the dash, is prevalent and increasingly I see the double dash -- appearing.

I can imagine several reasons for this. Ockham’s Razor1 says the simplest reason is the most likely. I suggest then that the simplest reason is we collectively have not discovered how to type the dashes. So first I’ll deal with the both the varieties and then I’ll deal with the reasoning for classification.

Of course, we use the hyphen symbol when hyphenating to assist with pagination, mean-ing the way print sits on the page, allowing us to break words up, not al-ways helpfully. This should be a soft hyph-en, only showing where a break is required. Good WP software has this built in. Or built-in.


hyphen, -. On my keyboard, to the right of zero. Generally used in hyphen-ation. Also used surrounded by space - as the dash.

en dash2, – sometime en-dash and endash. On my keyboard, alt hyphen. Generally used surrounded by space – as the dash, though I suspect many are typing a hyphen instead.

em dash —, similarly em-dash and emdash. On my keyboard, alt shift dash. Usually used without space—like this. On a PC one way to do this is ALT 0151 (keypad only) for the unicode character, perhaps &#151. In Word, two hyphens are automatically converted to an em dash. Seen increasingly as --, a doubled dash.

Possible Unicode characters are, bracketing each with two spaces:

  ¯  the macron, U+00AF             _  the low line, U+005F

  ­  the soft hyphen, U+00AD  shorter and U+ 002D, - a hard hyphen

  ‑  the non-breaking hyphen, U+2011, ‑ finer than an en dash

   –  the en dash, U+2013       and  —  the em dash, U+2014, —

  ― the horizontal bar, U+2015 (I see no difference)

  −  the minus sign, U+2212  

The HTML is self-explanatory: &mdash (&#151), &ndash (&#150)

Unicode characters (and input that way, as unicode defined). Some displace leftwards, not shown:

002d -  00ab « 00ac ¬ 00ad ­ 00ae ® 00af ¯      005b [ 005c \ 005d ] 005e ^ 005f _

2010 ‒  2011 ‑  2012 ‒  2013 –  2014 —  2015 ―  2016 ‖  2017 ‗  2018 ‘  2019201a ‚  201b201c “  201d ”  201e „  201f ‟  

2050 ⁐  2051 ⁑  2052 ⁒  2053 ⁓  2054 ⁔  2055 ⁕  2056 ⁖  2057 ⁗  2058 ⁘  2059 ⁙  205a205b205c205d205e  205f

20d0 ⃐  20d1 ⃑  20d2 ⃒  20d3 ⃓  20d4 ⃔   20d5 ⃕  20d6 ⃖  20d7 ⃗  20d8 ⃘  20d920da20db20dc20de20df

20e0 ⃠  20e1 ⃡  20e2 ⃢  20e3  ⃣  20e4 ⃤  20e5 ⃥  20e6  ⃦  20e7  ⃧   20e8  ⃨  20e9  ⃩  20ea  ⃪ 20eb  ⃫ 20ec  ⃬ 20ed  ⃭ 20ee  ⃮ 20ef  ⃯

21002101210221032104 ℄  21052106210721082109210a 210b210c210d210e210f

2120 ℠  212121222123212421252126 Ω 2127 ℧  21282129212a K 212b Å 212c212d212e212f


A hyphen joins two or more words together while a dash separates words into parenthetical statements. The two are sometimes confused because they look so similar, but their usage is different. Hyphens are not separated by spaces, while a dash has a space on either side. Source.

Hyphens also preserve written clarity such as where there are letter collisions, where a prefix is added, or in family relations. Many words that have been hyphenated in the past have since dropped the hyphen and become a single word (email, nowadays).

Examples showing variety: son-in-law; anti-terrorism; recover vs re-cover; twenty-seven; two-thirds; 100-metre sprint, 1971-4.

I don’t use hyphens in numbers and I see no need for that. I think antiterrorism is becoming a word without a hyphen and I see such movement as development of language. Son-in-law cannot, I think, become soninlaw but is less readable without the hyphens. Might we accept inlaws rather than in-laws?

Might you prefer 1971–9  or even 1971—94, using  longer dash for a longer interval? I think perhaps I shall agree with the style guides that say a time interval should be shown with an en dash, seeing them on the page. Readability and understanding have to be the objectives, surely. So I was at senior school 1963–71, not 1963-71. One more key-press.


The Dash is the longer line used as punctuation in sentences – coming in between words (as in this sentence). It can also be used – as here – in pairs. That is parenthetic use, as a substitute for brackets.

The same source then gives a pair of examples, showing the two alternative dash types, thus:

Paul sang his song terribly – and he thought he was brilliant!

He’s won the election—granted, there was only a low turnout—but he’s won!

I like to use dashes in places where commas are somehow insufficient, and particularly when reflecting an interjection. I moved  - as I wrote earlier - from the space-bracketed en dash to the—lesser effort—emdash – but I missed the en dash (used there) only from keyboard ignorance. I will change further and attempt to use all three. However, for typed mathematics I may well use an en dash in preference to the hyphen (marked as ‘hyphen-minus’ in the Unicode labelling). I am sure that a minus sign should be a separate character, but I’m not seeing any difference from my keyboard (- and - look identical)3

You might like sight of the vast range of brackets in the Unicode library. I include a selection here.

«〈《 ❨ ❮ { ⟦【〖〘 ⸨⦗❰

  ⦒ ⦔ ⦖ ︗ ︽ ⸡


Since much of the use of dashes and their like is as parentheses, it is worth looking at the wide selection. I was taught a set of precedence rules for use (in school, in maths, I don’t know)  {[( content )]} which is nicely copied on the keyboard for accessibility, though you might argue that the [square brackets] are easiest. Recent reading has shown me /the slash/ and the \backslash\ in sci-fi use; I agree with my daughter to use <insert suitable word> for a grammar item (and because it works on Facebook, but she also like using *an asterisk* in this way. I think I prefer my parentheses to be sided, so while I wouldn’t (yet) use /slash\ or \slash/ I quite like <the unequal signs>, (round) and [square] but rarely use {set brackets} except in a particular type of maths. I could use the |modulus| symbols quite happily, but have grown to like—the em dash—for its visual effect, though I recognise the  - paired hyphen - and correct that previous use to the  – paired – endash. Perhaps one should have a style guide rule that allows for both pairings – en – and—em—?  I accept that the em with bracketed space is too much — like so: I accept the criticism of usability in ebook readers—but say that is a fairly easy software fix, all em dashes come with soft hyphens each side. I am minded to rule for myself that the em dash bracket is overmuch but I would rather have a content rule for the choice between en and em dash use as brackets, perhaps chosen in relation to the aptness of the content within the text? The idea is to permit writing to mimic speech patterns, I think. If not, then these punctuation alternatives must be used to add colour to written text in a way parallel but different from the use of pitch and tone in speech.

Dashhyphen.com tells me I have moved to the ‘older’ version, the m-dash. I argue that it is fewer keystrokes that the space en-dash space ( - ); the counter argument would, I think, run along the lines that

  1. (i) it’s too clever,
  2. (ii) “I can’t do it on my phone (the only place I now write)” and
  3. (iii) I don’t see a difference worth bothering with.

I explored some more and can add these, while agreeing with none of those arguments but the third:

  1. (iv) on e-readers, line breaks only occur at spaces, so the long dash fails to format well,
  2. (v) authors don’t like the heavy ‘look’ of the em dash.

Catie Holdridge says the en dash is more British and the em dash more American (i.e. that Brits would not use the em dash at all) and she calls them en-rule and em-rule, en-dash and em-dash. I can agree that the hyphen helps connect the unfamiliar em and en measures with the heavier noun, dash, but I’m not going to agree to do that myself, having had ell, em and en within my vocabulary since my early teens.

That comment caused me to search for British English usage guides and led me to gsbc. Absolutely correctly, gsbc points out that there is always an option—that the dash is never required (unlike the hyphen). But gsbc does require that the hyphen is a shorter character than the dash. I agree and would like an ell dash to use as a hyphen [Oh, that is what it is; how clever]. GSBC identifies three dash lengths (hyphen, en, em). In Unicode these appear to be 002d -, 2013 – and 2014 —. On my keyboard  I discover the set of three - – — are minus, alt minus and shift alt minus. In Word it is the same (for me, Office 2008). On my iPhone iPad and similar smaller gadgets the reduced character set means only the hyphen is available.

I suspect that is what is causing the drift away from any ‘proper’ use of dashes and towards the multiple use of hyphens, -, --, ---, with and without adjacent spaces.

So I discover that I have been, accidentally, failing to use the en dash. That puts me in the company of Bill Walsh, copy chief at the Washington Post, except he does it from choice.

DJS 20160623

decision day for Remain / Leave

Still battling with this as a tool going to waste, I think I should use the em-dash only when in a bracketed pair —like this— and use the en-dash when used independently, where only one of them is in use  – so that the reader can tell if this is an included aside (emdash), or one that is completed by the end of the sentence (endash with spaces). I will eventually go back and rework this feature throughout these essays, so as to have consistency.

Sites used:








      some of the following appears in Bold onscreeen. I do not understand. A weird effect of the superscript symbol?

1   William of Ockham 1287-1347, often written as Occam, also called the law of parsimony. Based on wikipedia entry. Worth a read. In Maths, quoting Occam’s razor is an excuse to use the simplest available model, if only because that will perhaps most easily define the possibilities to consider with subsequent models. Properly (in my mind) it, the razor, defines a decision line; this thing is this or not this. Thus very simple classifications can be built. there was a delightful note on a board in the Mathematical Institute at Oxford for several weeks while I was a student, explaining how to catch a lion in the desert. The method entitled Occam’s Razor said something like this: put a fence across the desert; the lion assumed present is one side or the other. On that side, put a fence across what is left and decide which side includes the lion. Continue dividing the space and building fence until the lion is caged.  See Essay 198, or click next >, below.

en and em are perfectly acceptable words from printing. ell, en and em are letter widths, as in l, n, m. Ell sized letters presumably include i and perhaps j and 1, perhaps including f and r, while em letters are, I guess m, w and many capitals. An em is 16 points wide in a 16 point typeface. An en is half an em, mostly. In Unicode you find full-width and half-width forms. See. As I used the words more and more in writing this page, I settled steadily upon en dash and em dash and the writing on the page reflects that change.

3 I discovered how to test that, Apple users: Add character viewer to the screen (icon up by my clock), put a character in the search box and it shows what the keyboard has used. My machine says hyphen and minus are identical. Apple stack exchange  tells me a number of interesting things such as … being alt; (which, like the en-dash, is disengaged if I am also inputting Unicode Hex characters). I see how to do this in Word (effectively a global find-and-replace using auto-correct). There are little applications that allow for adjustment of the keyboard (but I remember doing that from choice on my very first Mac, which means there is a Terminal route to this. Side issue; numerical keypad unaffected by shift or alt keys (trick missed?). I can also see how to do this yet again in the newest version of OS X, just not in 10.7.5. Best for now to turn Unicode input on or to recognise the special character route. Really, a minus sign should be correct; the reason it isn’t right is that programming languages use a hyphen.

© David Scoins 2017