When a Hyphen is NOT a Dash

Ever wonder what the difference is between the long and short dashes? And why MS Word sometimes changes your perfectly typed hyphens into something longer?

Here’s a quick rundown of what they’re called, and what they’re good for.
(-) this is a hyphen, used to separate compound words (EX: mixed-up medley)
(–) this is an en-dash (made by pressing Ctrl-key plus the minus key on the keypad). Its uses are the same as the em-dash below with one exception, but when used, it gets one space before and one after
(—) this is an em-dash (Ctrl, Shift, minus). They get their names from the different widths of the letters (n is narrower than m).
Appropriate uses for en- and em-dashes are:
  • to separate a clause in the middle of a sentence more emphatically than using commas
    • EX: She tearfully drove to the grocery store – a trip she made daily – despite no longer having a big family to cook for.
  • to set off a clause that explains the last word before the dash
    • EX: Mere weeks after giving birth, she was already contemplating the child’s education—military school!
  • in place of a colon
    • EX: My stranded-on-a-desert-island wish list would include just three things—Fruit Loops, Pop Tarts, and the collected works of Billy Joel.
Exclusive to the em-dash:
  • used at the end of a line of dialogue to show that someone else is about to interrupt
    • EX: “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times… the state of your bedroom would make—”
    • “Yeah, yeah… Chernobyl was just a big tree-hugging festival.”
As for what makes MS Word auto-correct your work, it’s a result of typing a space followed by a hyphen followed by another space, but it only gets converted into an en-dash when you immediately type another word and a space.
  • EX: MS Word does this funny auto-correct thing with my name – it …
  • Becomes: MS Word does this funny auto-correct thing with my name – it changes Demetra to dementia.
To type an em-dash, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus
key. Alternatively, press the Hyphen key twice and press Space.
To type an en-dash, hold down the Option key and press the Minus key.

Write (and hyphenate and dash-ify) with joy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *