What’s the difference between a dash and a hyphen? For most people the difference is immaterial—aren’t they just they just different words for this little thing— -?
Well, not quite. For most people the difference isn’t really important, but if you spend a reasonable amount of time writing, the differences are important.
Until recently, I would have told you that the simple difference is that a hyphen joins things together, while a dash separates. For example:
I speak Hiberno-English.
This event is carbon-neutral.
In these cases, we’re using a hyphen to join two different concepts together to create a third concept that merges the other two.
A dash, on the other hand, functions quite differently:
He saw the man—whom he’d seen earlier—following him.
She suggested going to the beach—which I thought was a great idea.
Here the dash is basically functioning as a comma—to make us pause a little when we read and put a little space between parts of a sentence. The main reason to use it instead of a comma is to make the words or phrase between or after the dash stand out more, when we really want to emphasise them. We may also wish to insert a dramatic pause—to create tension! Stylistically, a dash can be used for other reasons—to indicate dialogue in a story, or to replace missing words.
Strictly though, the dash described above is an em dash, which is quite separate from an en dash.
The different names indicate their appearances— the em dash is longer, the length of an m (—), whereas the en dash is the length of an n (–).
Depending on your perspective, the en dash is more similar to either the hyphen or the em dash, but for me it’s a combination of both, as it combines both the concepts of joining and separation.
We most often use an en dash to indicate a range or span of numbers, dates, times etc.
The years 1929 – 1939 saw millions suffer during the Great Depression.
Opening hours are 09.00 – 18.00.
In one sense, the en dash is connecting the beginning and end of the indicated span, as in these examples, in a similar manner to a hyphen. But unlike a hyphen, it’s not synthesising them, so like a dash it’s maintaining them as separate entities. 9am and 6pm aren’t being joined together to create a third time combining elements of both—instead we’re imagining the space between them.
Most computer keyboards only have a hyphen key, but most word-processing programs will allow you to create either type of dash using it. In Microsoft Word, for example, typing two hyphens between words with no spaces will convert them into an em dash. To create an en dash, type one hyphen with spaces between the words.
To create different hyphens when typing on WordPress—type them in Word first and then copy and paste! Maybe hyphens and dashes aren’t so important to most people, sadly.