User Experience (UX)
Victoria Kuhn
by Victoria Kuhn
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Hyphens, and en dashs, and em dashs, oh my!

06/02/2010
Hyphens, and en dashs, and em dashs, oh my!

As we mentioned last week, adhering to a standard style when writing your web content adds polish and professionalism. It is subtle, some of your readers may not even be aware of it. But the lack of it will stand out, the inconsistencies and errors will be glaring, and they will detract from your reputation. After all if you don't know how and when to use a hyphen, how could you possibly be an expert in your field? And since we've mentioned hyphens, let's start with them, and tackle dashes while we are at it.

They look very similar, except for differences in length, but hyphens and dashes have distinct functions. The definitions below are from The Chicago Manual, 15th edition. We'll start with the shortest and go from there.

  • The hyphen is the shortest in length and is used to separate numbers, like in a telephone number or a social security number. It also separates letters when a word is spelled out.
  • The en dash is a little longer than a hyphen and is used to connect numbers when you want to convey the meaning up to and including. The word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first number. The word and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element. The en dash may be used by itself after a date to indicate that something (a publication or a person’s life) is still going on.
  • The em dash is also referred to as the dash, and is the equivalent in length to two hyphens. It is the most commonly used and most versatile. There shouldn’t be more than two used in a sentence. Use them when you want a phrase or section of sentence to stand out. You can also use them to indicate a sudden break in thought or an interruption in conversation. A question mark or an exclamation point, but never a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and rarely a period may precede an em dash.

There are no spaces before or after a hyphen, en dash, or em dash.

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