Writing Tip: Dashes vs. Hyphens

In today’s Writing Tip, we’re going to talk about dashes (—) and hyphens (-). This is a pretty intense topic, so buckle up and prepare yourself for some extreme learning.


These cute little guys come in two varieties: em dashes (—) and en dashes (–). Can’t tell the difference? Em dashes are slightly longer. I know it doesn’t look like it, but trust me! I’m a professional. (God help us all.)

So these are the ones you use in lieu of brackets and commas to separate out phrases in a sentence (presumably there are other uses as well). I’ve seen em and en dashes used interchangeably (apparently en dashes are often used in date ranges, i.e. 1994–1998), but I favor em dashes, mostly because I like how they look. Anyway, here’s an example of dashes in action:

The awesome thing about dashes—and here I’m going to get technical, so watch out—is that they look like little snakes. I know, I know, it’s crazy. I’ll say, “Yo yo, Humphrey, H-skillet, this here dash dun look like a tiny little snake dude—” And Humphrey gets so irritated with my inability to correctly formulate English sentences that he interrupts me by pulling out an actual, live snake and throwing it at my face. But the fact remains that dashes—or any straight line, for that matter—are eerily reminiscent of our slithery brethren.




These are also called “short dashes” by very silly people, including myself. Sometimes I’ll even call dashes “long hyphens”, because I’m depressingly inconsistent in my terminology. Regardless, hyphens are the ones you use to connect words together, like “twenty-one” or “American-owned” or, when referring to the Dark Lord, “Good-old-What’s-his-face”.

Here is an example of hyphens in action:

In nineteen-eighty-one, I met a seventy-two-year-old man whose name was Johnathon Preposterously-Long-Surname. Mr. Preposterously-Long-Surname was the child of Mary-Anne Preposterously and Billy-Bob Long-Surname. Billy-Bob himself was the child of hyphenated parents, Gracia Long and Eustace Surname, who combined their names to create the aforementioned “Long-Surname” moniker.


So, to wrap up, dashes and hyphens are different. They’re not interchangeable. And they’re really confusing when used too much in a single paragraph, as can be seen above. They are also part of very violent punctuation gangs who roam the streets at night correcting grammatically incorrect graffiti and getting into fist-fights (correct use of hyphen, incorrect use of spelling!). So be aware, and stay safe out there, my blogging compatriots!


Unrelated media of the day:

New music video by Marianas Trench making fun of pop songs …

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments

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48 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Dashes vs. Hyphens

  1. Why does this grammar and writing thing have to have so many rules? 😦 😛

    • Ack, I know! The nice thing is that once you get them sorted out in your head, it becomes really easy 😀 Of course, it’s the getting to that point that’s a pain in the caboose …

      • Yeah. Also praying nobody changes the rules.

        • With the advent of the internet, I suspect English grammar is on the verge of changing irrevocably. For example, I bet you can read this horrendous sentence: lol look m8 i dun unnerstan wut ur sayin but i thnk its reel smrt 2 punch a yak in the throat kk?

          • Not sure if I should be proud or ashamed that I could easily read that.

            • Well, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and sinners have more fun, so go with pride.

              • Funny. Just got up to him showing up in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.

                • Dude, Pride is TERRIFYING in FMAB. Of all the homunculi, he is the one I would least like to meet in a dark alley. Not that I’d want to meet any of them in a dark alley, but him the least.

                  • I don’t know. Gluttony would be fun to unleash on a Chinese buffet. For some reason I like him and Sloth more than the others. I seem to always despise Wrath no matter which version. The kid in the first series was always a target of hate for my friends and I.

                    • Hmm … favourite homunculus … I’m actually a huge fan of Greed. He seems to have the most personality of all the homunculi, and he’s just very sassy and arrogant, which I find fun. I also enjoyed Gluttony, as his childlike innocence is such a weird and hilarious counterpoint to his tendency to eat people.

                    • First or second Greed? I think with Sloth, I think he’s both comical and interesting even though he gets the least amount of development.

                      The one that I’m never certain on is Envy. He/she seems to get the longest development arc, but I have trouble connecting him/her to the actual sin.

                    • Umm … I like both iterations of Greed, to be honest. Greed was the least homunculus-y of them all, and actually seemed to care about humans to a certain extent. And it’s really fun when it’s Greed mixed with Ling, because then there’s the whole internal struggle thing going on. Envy does get a long arc, doesn’t he? I think he embodies “envy” in the sense that he can change his appearance to any human he wants, but he can’t actually become a human, and that’s what he’s envious of — that he wants to be human, he wants that interpersonal connection, etc.

                    • I think Greed worked to his sin very well because someone like that wouldn’t really be a minion. So I thought he was very homunculus-y in both iterations. I could never tell if he cared about other humans or just saw them as property. He definitely worked better in Brotherhood than the original. I think the thing I liked the most out of the original is that there was more of a story to Lust.

                      I thought Envy hated humans the most out of the homunculi. Going by his/her final scene, she really looked down on them. I’m trying to remember what Ed said to lock in the envy part of the persona. Maybe it was the connections or the fact that humans kept going even after being battered down.

                      I’ll get to it again. We’re at the point where Scar escaped Kimblee in the North with a ‘special’ hostage. Not mentioning that spoiler.

                      (Is it wrong that one of my favorite characters by the end is Heinkel?)

                    • If loving secondary characters is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. For example, I think General Armstrong is just about the most kick-a** characters in existence, and I absolutely love that she plays as large a role in the plot as she does.

                    • Good point. Sometimes the secondary characters steal the show like Barry the Chopper and Buccaneer.

  2. And then there’s the minus sign: 3−1 is in the middle of the 1–3 range. 🙂

  3. I’ve often read about the difference between the two, but it took your inimitable style to nail it for me! Well done! 🙂

    I still have one question: does one leave a space before or after the hyphen and/or dash?

    (And yes, that’s why I hire a professional editor for my books…)

    • Hyphens and en-dashes join things, so are usually set without a space.

      I have seen em-dashes done either way. I set them without a space so they appear consistent with any terminal em-dashes.

    • For hyphen (the short one), you don’t want a space when it’s connecting two words. Exception is when you’re doing a list of words that need hyphens, like, “Am I the step- or step-step-daughter of Mrs. Robinsons?” So you’d have a hyphen with a space after the first “step” because it’s attached to daughter just like “step-step” is, but it’s just not physically next to daughter in the sentence.

      And then dashes … ahhh, I’ve seen different variations. For my job, they like us to use en dashes (the shorter dash) with a space on each side, so like this, “My mother — and all my relatives, for that matter — is extremely ridiculous.” I don’t think I’ve seen someone use spaces around an em dash (the longer one). And then if you have a dash at the end of a sentence, like someone’s cutting you off mid-speech, you’d have the dash and then a quotation mark.

  4. Well that’s always confused me. Thanks for the tutorial!

    • Glad I could help! I just finished proofreading a book and noticed the problem come up, so I figured I should share in the hopes of saving other writers a few hours of revision 😀

  5. Only you could come up with an example paragraph that has someone that sounds simultaneously like a gansta from Harlem and a redneck from Mississippi and also includes throwing snakes. Well done.

  6. As soon as I saw that this post was a lesson in grammar, I got a little nervous! Grammar is my worst enemy when it comes to writing. (Ironic since I plan to try and go teach it to other people, right?) It’s not that I don’t know how to USE it–at least usually–but that I don’t know the names/technical rules/etc. But luckily when I read the post, I wiped the profuse sweat from my brow, because I was correct about the usage of both types. Go me!

    • Go you!!!

      You’re talking about for teaching English? BELIEVE me, no grammar required. If you end up in a Hogwon (private school), there will be Korean teachers who do the grammar lessons for you (at least, that was my experience). And heck, the kids do have textbooks, so if you’re confused you can always double check the right answer 😀 Mostly your purpose for being in Korea is as someone the kids can just practice talking to — and trust me, your grammar is better than theirs, lol.

      • Ha ha, oh really?? That’s encouraging! I’m certainly more than qualified to just talk to people all day–that’s what I do now, but they’re usually grumpy and it pays a lot less. x)
        But yeah, grammar has always been the devil for me. Weird, I know. I didn’t know you taught at a private school!! Did you know anyone who taught in a public one?

        • A couple of people, yeah. The general consensus I got was that public school is a bit better, in terms of vacation days and then you also get a Korean teacher who tag-team teaches the class with you. But there’s usually only one foreign teacher per public school, which can get lonely, and they also pay less.

          • Ahh, yeah, I can see what you mean. But I have to say, I’ve heard some horror stories about those private schools, so I’m glad that yours was a good experience. 🙂

  7. Well done. I’ve been asked to do a post on this topic a few times, but now I don’t have to.

  8. Reblogged this on ericjohnbaker and commented:
    For those who requested a post on dash v hyphen, here’s an excellent, straightforward explanation from writer and fellow corporate lackey Michelle Proulx. Did I just say “corporate lackey” out loud?

  9. Nice! Thank you 🙂
    Maybe you could do one about semi-colons too? 😀

    • Semi-colons, eh? Hmmm … they’re tricky, no doubt about it. I’ll have to do some research and see what I can come up with 🙂

  10. Well worth the read. Thanks. Mister B’s links and advice are always worth following.

    I am a fan of Pratchett and in his books there is always a space after … like so.
    Is this simply style or do you reckon there should be no spaces like…so?

    • We’re talking ellipses here, right? My research has led me to conclude that you’re supposed to have a space before and after the ellipsis. So … like so. However, I’ve seen it done different ways, including like this… and like this…and so on. My vote is for space before and after 🙂

  11. I like the em dashes. I never think of them as snakes. I like how it has been declared by you (and all your training) the correct way for their use. And also explaining to us how the en dates are used. I have a hyphenated name and I would hate for someone to put an em dash there. I also think the em dashes are more dramatic. Really separating the sidebar thought. Thanks Eric!!!!!

    Also your video was not random. You did not use your super power. I am still struggling to find out what mine is!

    • I do like to make wild declarations, don’t I? And sometimes they’re even accurate 😀 Au contraire, the video was extremely random. But that’s the fun of it!

  12. Haha! Great post! Such great info, will try my hand at using them properly in my novel!

  13. Thank you for the tip! Great post.

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