Of hyphens, em-dash, en-dash and more

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You might think that the hyphen is a simple small horizontal line … but no.  There’s hidden depths even in horizontal lines within Microsoft Word.

Let’s start with the standard hyphen, actually called a ‘Hyphen-Minus’ with ASCII code 45.

That hyphen is the one to separate hyphenated words.  We have more on hyphenation and special hyphens below.

Technically there’s a difference between a dash (aka hyphen-minus), a hyphen and a minus sign, see the table below. In everyday life, most of us use the same key to type all three. We’ll use the terms dash & hyphen interchangeably because that’s what most people do.  If you delve into typography keep in mind that there is a difference.

Em-dash and En-dash

These are two other hyphen-like characters in Word, the Em-dash and the En-dash.

They were not on a standard typewriter keyboard so they weren’t in general use until word-processors made them available to the public.

The names come from the amount of horizontal space they use, relative to the M and N characters (lower or upper case, depending on the font).

Wikipedia has a page on the various dashes with examples of their use.  Here’s a summary:

Word shortcut: Ctrl + Alt + Num –  (that’s the hyphen/dash on a number pad)

“show an abrupt change in thought or be used where a full stop (period) is too strong and a comma too weak”

sometimes used to set off summaries or definitions”

Word shortcut: Ctrl + Num –  (that’s the hyphen/dash on a number pad)

To indicate ranges (“20-25 degrees”) or to join up words (“Dagg-Bayliss Act 2015”)


The Em-dash and En-dash are on the  ‘Special Characters’ menu (Insert | Symbol | More Symbols …) along with many other characters.

Here’s a table showing some of the many hyphen/dash symbols available. The commonly used ones with Word shortcuts are first, followed by others in the Unicode set for interest/comparison. The first column has been enlarged so you can see the differences.

With the Unicode value, you can use any of these in your documents using The Old Alt + X Trick

Optional hyphen

Word can hyphenate long words when they are at the end of a line.  This makes paragraphs look better and removes large gaps on the right before long words like this:

The same paragraph with hyphenation turned on Page Layout | Page Setup | Hyphenation | Automatic

If you have hyphenation on, Word has information and rules to work out the right place to break most words.

But there’s also the ability to enter an optional hyphen – that’s a hyphen which appears only when Word is hyphenating a document and the word needs to be split between lines.  Use this for long technical or product names that aren’t in the standard Word hyphenation data.

Typing Ctrl + –  (Ctrl and hyphen) inserts an optional hyphen.  In this example each word has an optional hyphen after the letter ‘c’ so it only appears when the word needs to be split at the end of a line.

Non-breaking hyphen

The opposite of an optional hyphen is the non-breaking or compulsory hyphen.

Type Ctrl + Shift + –  (hyphen) to insert a non-breaking hyphen.

As the name suggests, this type of hyphen appears all the time AND isn’t used by Word when hyphenating the word.

Here’s an entirely artificial case of a non-breaking and optional hyphen in the same word.  You would not do this in a real document, that way madness lies.

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