Type Tip #1: The Hyphen

Today I’m beginning what will be an occasional series of posts on good typographic principles all designers should remember.

Many may not even realize that different hyphenation marks exist, or if you do, you may still be confused as to their proper usage. You’re not alone. Many typographic errors that exist today have their origin with the typewriter. Remember those? There was a “dash” or hyphen to the right of the zero key. That’s it. Want anything longer? Repeat and repeat.

Professional typesetters, before their extinction, had three different characters to choose from when it came to this diminutive piece of punctuation. The hyphen (-), the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). Today’s computer keyboards contain these characters but they are what are called hidden characters, meaning they do not appear on the keyboard but can be created simply by using modifier keys (shift, option and command) on the Mac and unnecessarily complicated codes or character maps on the PC. These codes can be found here and here. My advice — get a Mac.

With the onset of desktop publishing, graphic designers, who should have a strong command of typography, are now their own typesetters, so to speak, and should know the nuanced use of these three similarly looking but very different characters.

A hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three and is the key we all know to the right of the zero key. It is used to divide words that are too long to fit on a line and therefore automatically break at the proper syllable. We may remember learning these rules in school. It is also used to connect a compound word or two related words that should be read together.


An en dash (–) is longer than a hyphen and is created by holding the option key and striking the hyphen key. On the PC it’s alt/0150 on the numeric keypad. It is used to divide a range of values such as a span of time or numerical quantities and can be though of as the punctuational equivalent to using the words “to” and “from.” It is best used with an added space on each side of the dash.

Monday – Friday
9:00 – 11:00 am
1995 – 2011

An em dash (—) is the longest of the three and is created by holding the shift and option keys together and then striking the hyphen key. On the PC it’s alt/0151 on the numeric keypad. It is most often used to demarcate a break in thought in a sentence and is stronger than the use of parentheses. It connects independent clauses with interrupting thoughts.

I’d better have passed my test—it’s ninety percent of my class grade—or I’ll have to go to summer school.

No typographic detail is too small to be considered. If it’s not good type, it’s not good design so look professional and avoid committing type crimes by the proper use of the hyphen, en dash and em dash.

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1 Comment

Filed under Typography

One response to “Type Tip #1: The Hyphen

  1. Love the em dash, big fan of the em dash! I’ll confess I didn’t really understand the precise distinction between en dash and em dash, so I learned something here today.

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