Recently, there was a discussion on a loop I’m on regarding the various hyphens and dashes and how to create them typographically. There’s a lot of confusion, so I decided to post what I’ve learned over 20 or so years as a writer. Here they are, along with how to produce them—at least on a Mac.
hyphen: – the shortest; used to break words. (e.g., thirty-five) Simply hit the “hyphen/underline” key. A hyphen is NOT a dash, (nor, for that matter, is it a minus sign, which is actually a different character altogether for use in mathematical formulas.)
en-dash: – one “en” long, which is a typographical unit almost the width of the letter n. En dashes are used when you show a range of values (e.g., 25–30 miles, 16–18 years old) and to indicate an interruption in a word/sentence (e.g., “Run through the gar–”) Created with Option+ – (Option plus hyphen) (I think that’s Ctrl + Num – on a Windows machine, that is CTRL plus the minus sign on the number pad)
em-dash: — two ens long, or about the width of a capital M. In typewriter and early computer days, they were entered as a double hyphen –, but there’s really no reason to do them that way any more. Em dashes are used to set off parenthetical phrases. (e.g., She ran—or at least she hoped she was running—through the garden.) Also used kind of like a colon, to separate the last phrase of a sentence that’s related but not actually a part (All three of my horses lost—Tiger, King, and Flicka). Created with Option+Shift+ – . I’m not at all sure how to produce it on Windows machines, but if you’re working in Word, you can set it up to auto-correct the double hyphen ( — ) to an em dash.
There are other symbols that you can create typographically, as well. Several years back I bookmarked an article with the 10 most common typographical errors that has helped me a lot with things like true degree marks, correcting smart quotes when they’re backwards in years (i.e. appearing as ‘08 when they should be ’08), proper ellipses, and so on, and without having to look up Unicodes or cutting & pasting. Find it at