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Have you ever written a document and came to a point in a sentence where you Hyperventilate1 thimbleannawere sure you needed to pause or explain something, but weren’t sure which punctuation to use? Should it be a dash or hyphen? And if a dash, what exactly is the difference between the en-dash and the em-dash? So then maybe, you felt somewhat confident, chose one and then typed the dash keystroke only to see it shift to something totally different? Or the spacing was different on both sides of the symbol and you couldn’t remember if it was one space, or two or none?

Ugh. At this point you probably thought forget it, I’ll just rewrite the sentence.

Don’t fear, it’s okay. You can put down the brown paper bag. You really have nothing to fear from the dash or the hyphen.

Basically, the dash (— or –) separates ideas, but the hyphen (-) joins them. Here’s a quick way to remember which to use.

The hyphen connects ideas and is the punctuation mark you’ve probably seen the most. It’s used in three ways:

  1. It divides a word at the end of line of text.
    • Always divide at the syllable. You cannot divide a single syllable word
  2. It connects two descriptive words that should be considered as one.
    • He gazed deeply into her green-gold eyes.
  3. It creates compound nouns.
    • The three-year-old ruled the house with an iron fist.
    • This is need-to-know information.

The dash separates ideas. There are two types of dash: the en-dash and the em-dash.

  1. The en-dash is the shorter version of the dash, named en-dash, as it should be the same length as the letter ‘n’. The en-dash should always have spacing before and after.
    • Chris sang his karaoke song terribly – and he thought he was brilliant!
  2. The em-dash is the longer version, named em-dash as it should be the same length as the letter ‘m.’ The em-dash should never have spaces before or after it. You can either use “—“ or “–“ for the em-dash.
    • The meeting room—a pleasant enough place during the day—looked ominous at night.
    • The meeting room–a pleasant enough place during the day–looked ominous at night.

So put down the paper bag and remember the hyphen connects while the dash separates. Try to use the hyphen or the dash this week in one of your documents. What I can’t tell you is which keystroke or short cut on your computer program to use. Is it CTRL+“-“ or ALT+CTRL+“-“  or “-“+“-“ or if you’re on a MAC should you use the apple key . . .  wait, you better leave that paper bag with me.

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