How to choose the right hyphen character in Word

A hyphen by any other name might not be the hyphen you need. Learn when and how to use four hyphen characters at your disposal.


Image: Ahamed

Everyone knows what a hyphen is. It's the graphic character to the right of the 0 on your keyboard that connects two words or indicates that a word is wrapped to the next line at the right margin. What you might not know is that Word has other hyphen characters—characters that are more precise to context. In this article, you'll learn about the hyphen characters Word offers. You'll also learn when to use them and how to insert them into your Word documents.

I'm using Office 2016 on a Windows 64-bit system but almost everything you learn in this article will apply to earlier versions. You won't need a demonstration file to follow along.

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The characters

Table A shows the four hyphen characters we'll discuss in this article. We'll review their proper uses in punctuation and the methods for inserting them into your documents.

Table A

Table A

*Word refers to the minus character as a figure dash.

Historically, all hyphen characters were represented by what some call the hyphen-minus character because typewriters only had one hyphen. More precise characters were limited to professionally typeset publications. In the digital age, we can use the correct symbols, but because we're so familiar with the hyphen-minus character, it persists as the character used most often to:

  • Create compound words (hyphen)
  • Combine adjectives when neither can stand alone (hyphen)
  • Break a word that wraps to the next line at the right margin (hyphen)
  • Connect grouped numbers, such as a phone number or a social security number (hyphen)
  • Indicate a negative numeric value (minus)
  • Indicate a subtraction operation (minus)

Most of the time, we use the same character to do all of the above, but technically, there's a subtle difference between a hyphen and a minus sign: The minus sign has more leading between itself and the adjacent characters and sits higher horizontally. Now that you know the difference, there's no reason not to use the hyphen and minus characters properly.

Let's move on to the en and em dashes, also known as n and m dashes. Their names are actually a description: The en dash is the width of an uppercase N; the em dash is the width of an uppercase M. As you might expect, the em dash is wider than the en dash. When it matters, use the en dash to join numbers in a range, such as 2015-2016 and September-October 2016. Use the em dash to separate a unique thought from the main clause of a sentence. (This is a personal favorite.) It's more intense than a comma, but less abrupt than a period.

How to insert

Now that you're familiar with the four hyphen characters, you'll want to know how to insert them. Throughout the rest of this article, I will reference each character using the names from Table A: hyphen, minus, en, and em.

The simplest way to insert a hyphen is to use the key to the right of the 0 character. The others require a bit more work. To fill Table A, I used the Unicode method to insert all four characters in the Example column. Simply type the code and then press [Alt]+X; Word will convert the code if the code stands alone. If no space character separates the code from other characters, select the code first and then press [Alt]+X.

You can also use the Insert tab as follows:

  1. Click Insert, click Symbol in the Symbols group, and choose More Symbols (Figure A).
  2. In the resulting dialog, choose (normal text) from the Font dropdown. Word defaults to the ASCII code and the characters are sorted accordingly, which can help you find the right hyphen if you know its code. The selected character in Figure B is the hyphen. If your dialog selects something different, don't worry; this feature remembers what you chose last. It also displays the currently selected character in your document. Either situation could apply.
  3. You can also rely on the Unicode to insert the appropriate character by choosing Unicode (hex) from the From dropdown (Figure C).
  4. To insert the selected character, click Insert.

Figure A

Figure A
Use the Symbols group to insert hyphen characters.

Figure B

Figure B
Select a symbol.

Figure C

Figure C
Choose a code option.

If you know the ASCII or Unicode value, you can enter either manually into the Character Code control and the dialog will update the selection accordingly.

Fortunately, there's an easier way to insert these dashes:

  • To insert an en dash, use the hyphen and separate the hyphen from the actual text with a space. In other words, type blah space hyphen space [Enter]. Word's AutoCorrect feature will replace the hyphen you typed with an en dash.
  • To insert an em dash, type two hyphens with no space characters: blahhyphenhyphen[Enter]. Word will replace the two hyphens with an em dash.

If one or both of these keyboard options don't work, check your AutoCorrect options:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options in the left pane.
  2. Choose Proofing in the left pane.
  3. Click AutoCorrect Options.
  4. Click the AutoFormat As You Type tab.
  5. Check the Hyphens (—) With Dash (—) option in the Replace As You Type section (Figure D).

Figure D

Figure D
Select this option if the keyboard shortcuts don't work as expected.

It's possible that you won't always want Word to convert these keystrokes. When this is the case, pressing [Ctrl]+Z will undo the AutoCorrect replacement.

Here's one more approach. If you have a full keyboard, you can use the minus sign on the numeric keypad as follows:

    • Press [Ctrl]+- to insert an en dash.
    • Press [Alt]+[Ctrl]- to insert an em dash.

    For these two shortcuts to work, you must use the minus sign in the numeric keypad; the hyphen character (to the right of the 0 character) won't work.

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    Worth noting

    Despite your best efforts, mobile devices and browsers might not render the characters the way you expect. These are inconsistencies you can't control, but you can account for them. My advice is to check all the possibilities, adapt the original document accordingly, and be prepared to compromise if you need to support multiple devices and browsers.

    If you're sending content to Twitter or Facebook, most devices will render the characters correctly if you copy the content from Word. If you're using a smartphone to type the text directly, hold down the hyphen character and it might display additional hyphen characters.

    If you inherit a document that uses these characters incorrectly, you can use Find & Replace in Word to change them:

    1. On the Home tab, click Replace in the Editing group.
    2. In the resulting dialog, click Special to see the characters (Figure E).
    3. If you don't see the Special option, click More.

    Figure E

    Figure E
    Find these characters using Find & Replace.

    In an effort to be comprehensive, I want to briefly mention two functional hyphens for breaking words at the right margin:

    • Type [Ctrl]+- to insert an optional hyphen, which appears only when a word needs to be divided at the right margin.
    • Type [Ctrl]+[Shift]+- to insert a nonbreaking hyphen when you don't want a word divided at the right margin.

    The - character is the hyphen (to the right of the 0 character). Beyond knowing that these two hyphens are available, we won't discuss them further.

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    About Susan Harkins

    Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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