Many people don’t know there are different kinds of dashes. They often call a hyphen a dash — which, to an editor, is like calling a period a colon.
In fact, there are an unnerving assortment of horizontal lines available to typographers, including (but not limited to) the hyphen, soft hyphen, minus sign, angled dash, swung dash, en dash, figure dash, em dash, two-em dash, three-em dash, and horizontal rule.
Here’s a brief rundown:
A hyphen is that little bit of mortar between the bricks of compound words such as Coca-Cola and high-strung. Its origins trace back to ancient Greece; its modern form dates to the 1400s. Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, is credited with first using it to let a word break off at the end of one line and pick up on the next. It’s the only one that’s standard on typewriter keyboards, so people tend to use it to stand in for… well, all the other ones.
The ancients among us who learned to type on actual typewriters were taught to use two hyphens to make a dash, and many people still do — but, like underlining for italics and double spaces after periods, that was only meant as an indication for the typesetter. Printed matter using proper full fonts is supposed to use the right lines in the right places. Microsoft Word has decided to be helpful in this: By default, if you type two dashes between two words, they become an em dash — unless you put a space on either side, in which case they become an en dash, same as if you just type space-hyphen-space.
Soft hyphen: –
This is a creature of the computer age: It’s a hyphen you can insert in a word to tell it to break at that place and no other, and it only shows up if the word breaks at the end of a line. Otherwise it’s invisible.
Non-breaking hyphen: ‑
This is the opposite of a soft hyphen: You always see it and it does not allow a line break right before or after it.
Minus sign: −
This is used in math, of course. Why not just use a hyphen or an en dash? They (usually) don’t look the same, but the difference is not huge. And in Excel, a hyphen functions as a minus sign (an en dash does not!). But if you’re working with a book or article that has …read more