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The dash and the hyphen are as different as the kiwi and the kiwi (the fruit and the animal).

The hyphen (-) is used to hold two words or two parts of words together. The dash is used to add bonus information.

A hyphen has many uses as a conjoiner.

We use it for spelling out numbers higher than 20:

Forty-three, sixty-seven

We use it for continuing a word on the next line of text, between syllables.

Jim had been sitting in front of the jigsaw puzzle for 16 hours be-fore he could tear himself away.

Also, the hyphen is used with many prefixes:




I know the hyphen is used with suffixes, too, but I can only think of one:


At times, a hyphen is used to distinguish between words:

To re-sign is to sign something again.

To resign is to quit.

If you have re-sent something, you have perhaps emailed it a second time.

If you resent something, someone has done something that bothers you.

A hyphen is used to separate double letters:



Re-entry. (So you don't think it's "reen-tri.")

Hyphens are used to signal that two words go together. In these examples, the two words combine to form an adjective, or descriptive word, for the noun that comes after it:

One-trick pony

Wind-blown plains

Man-eating bear

Sun-dried tomatoes

Thought-provoking eggplant parmigiana (when it's made right)

The dash (--) is used to show that the information in between is nonessential but adds detail.

I think the dash can be overused, but it's a matter of taste. In many cases, two commas could replace the two dashes. Or you can change the sentence a little to avoid the dashes.

"Some aging commercial real estate -- in particular, office buildings past their prime -- could be converted into apartment buildings."

Instead, this could be:

"Some aging commercial real estate, particularly office buildings past their prime, could be converted into apartment buildings."


"Cooking flour in some kind of fat -- butter, oil or pan drippings -- is what thickens a gravy."

This could be:

"Cooking flour in butter, oil, pan drippings or some other kinds of fat is what thickens a gravy."

Another example:

"Other animals are occasionally studied -- horses and fish come up quite often, too -- but is there any divide between the effectiveness of one type of animal versus another?"

This could be:

"Other animals, such as horses and fish, are occasionally studied. But is there any divide between the effectiveness of one type of animal versus another?"

In formal writing, I don't use dashes. Sometimes, the need to use the dashes may tell you that the detail would be better elsewhere.


Yes, "persons" is the plural of "person." And "people" isn't the strict plural of "person." But we say "people" in nearly all usages when we mean more than one person.

The two words came from different Latin roots.

"People" comes from the Latin word for "populace" or "population." "Person" comes from the Latin word meaning "mask" or "role," such as one played by an actor. But "person" soon came to mean a single human.

For centuries now, "people" has been used as the plural for "person." Often, "persons" is used in legal documents or police reports. But it's not what people normally say.

"How many persons will be at the party?"


"Peoples" is another curious usage. It's used to indicate broad categories and in scholarly writing, often when more than one country or group is involved. One company's website describes an educational collection: "This series is about the European tribes and peoples from their origins in prehistory to the present day."

But probably "people" would have worked just as well there.


You don't think it will ever happen, and then it does. Some film people a while back made a sequel and called it Dumb and Dumber To.

OK, OK, I did laugh a few times during the trailer. But it was more of a wincing laughter.

In any case, that "to" should, of course, be "two." The makers were going for the humor of the less-than-genius characters who probably don't spell well.

"To," "too" and "two" are homophones, meaning they sound the same but have different definitions and spellings.

"Two" is, of course, the numeral lurking between one and three. I don't think it normally gets confused with "to" and "too." But "to" and "too" are used incorrectly for each other all the time.

"To" is a preposition or is attached to a verb. "Too" means "very."

Are you going to the party?

Wrong: I want too!

Right: I want to!

Wrong: That baby is to cute for words.

Right: That baby is too cute for words.

Sources: Purdue University, Merriam-Webster, Associated Press Stylebook, World Wide Words, Wiley, Oxford Dictionaries, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe

Style on 10/08/2018

Print Headline: Hyphens not same as dashes


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