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In the world of typography, a humble horizontal line can mean at least seven different things depending on its length and the context in which it gets used. Generally, the most confusing of these are the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. We’ll explain the differences.

Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen vs. Minus

As we mentioned above, each type of dash, hyphen, or minus sign has its own special length, and each also gets its own Unicode character. Let’s take a look at how each one differs—and we’ll also show you how to type them.

  • Hyphen (-): A hyphen joins words together and is used to form compound words (usually compound adjectives) such as “once-in-a-lifetime” or “cyborg-related.” It is the shortest of the horizontal-line family of punctuation marks. To type a hyphen, simply press the minus key on your keyboard.
  • En Dash (–): An en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It’s used to denote a numerical range (such as 1981-1983) or to replace the word “to” in comparisons. You can type it on Windows by holding Alt on your keyboard and pressing 0150. On Mac, type it by pressing Option+Minus.
  • Em Dash (—): An em dash is longer than a hyphen and an en dash, and it’s often used to separate interjections or parenthetical phrases—such as this one—without interrupting the flow of the sentence. It can also replace other types of punctuation as well. The em dash inspires controversy at times because of how often it appears in modern writing. To type it on Windows, press Alt+0151. On a Mac, press Shift+Option+Minus.
  • Minus (−): A minus is a mathematical symbol that is technically longer than a hyphen and shorter than an em dash. We say “technically” because most people use the same minus key to type either a hyphen or minus interchangeably on computers due to historical precedent from the typewriter era. Officially, hyphen and minus are two distinct characters. To type a minus informally, press the minus key on your keyboard. If you want the official Unicode minus character, you can use the Emoji picker in Windows (press Alt+Period) or on the Mac (Press Ctrl+Command+Space) then select it from the menu with your mouse cursor.

As if that weren’t enough, there are other horizontal line Unicode characters, such as underscore (_), macron (¯), and overline (‾)—all of which can be used in different contexts to mean different things. Type is very complicated, and usually you don’t need to worry about those. For the average person, you can often get by knowing just hyphen and em dash.

What’s the Difference Between a Dash and Em Dash?

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Even after all of that, you might still be confused: What about plain old “dash”? What is it, and how is it different than these other symbols? Well, it turns out that in the world of modern typography, a regular “dash” as a singular punctuation mark doesn’t really exist. Instead, “dash” is a term that encompasses multiple punctuation marks like the en dash and em dash.

So informally, you can say “dash” and mean either en dash or em dash, but if you want to type a dash, you have to pick one of the specific types of dashes. Hope we haven’t dashed your hopes! Good luck out there.

RELATED: What Are Character Encodings Like ANSI and Unicode, and How Do They Differ?

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Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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