March 9th, 2012
Readers can get distracted or confused when business writers mix up hyphens and dashes. The following sentences about the new iPad feature a correctly used hyphen and dash:
Any company that wants to make a tablet computer that matches the iPad’s $499 starting price has to endure higher costs. As a result, Apple’s tablet-making competitors have flailed — and failed.
Hyphens (-) are shorter than dashes (—). Hyphens appear most often in two-word phrases that come before a noun and describe it (e.g., “tablet-making competitors”). Think of hyphens as glue that holds two or more words together, uniting their meaning.
Dashes are different from hyphens in two more ways. Dashes are for parts of sentences rather than individual words, and their function is more to separate ideas than to unite them.
Dashes set off a group of words from the rest of a sentence by adding emphasis. A hyphen with spaces around it can’t stand in for a dash. The result looks careless and unpolished, and it can distract readers from your message:
Apple’s tablet-making competitors have flailed - and failed.
When you want to set off a word group, a correctly typed dash adds polish and emphasis to your sentence.
Write It Well’s book Essential Grammar includes two full, user-friendly chapters on punctuation. We’ve made all the book’s exercises available as a free download here to accompany the e-book, which is now available on Amazon.com!
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