Hyphen, en dash, em dash and ampersand: How and when to use them

By Michael Sasorith | June 2017


The main character of How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby, is known to be a stickler when it comes to grammar and spelling errors. He hates when people use the word “literally” when they mean figuratively, he finds spelling errors in restaurant menus and he feels the need to correct the grammar of graffiti.



Although this extreme attention to detail is conveyed as Ted’s character flaw in the show, we all know that in the real life being detail-oriented is a good thing—especially when marketing your organization’s message. Having just even a small error can detract your audience’s attention from the overall message and negatively affect your credibility.

Beyond spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, there are other common typographical sins that could affect your audience’s attention—the confusion of hyphens and dashes, and the misuse of ampersand. Since this is a set of peculiar typographical knowledge, not everyone will notice these errors. But, why risk getting the wrong type of attention from all the Ted Mosbys out there?



There’s a big library of symbols and characters, but only so much space on the keyboard—which is probably why hyphens have been used as a representative of the minus sign, en dash and em dash.

The proportional differences between hyphen, minus, en dash, and em dash.


The hyphen is the smallest of all these characters, and it is used in three ways:

  1. At the end of a line when a word breaks unto another line, also known as hyphenation. Unless you’re adjusting the rag (more typography mumbo-jumbo), computers hyphenate sentences automatically.
  2. Multipart words, i.e. cost-effective.
  3. When a number of words are combined as a phrase to describe a noun, also known as phrasal adjectives. For example, larger-than-life personality.


The hyphen-minus key, located between 0 key and the plus sign key, is how you type this symbol.
Note: Even though this has been accepted for typing a minus, a true minus sign is placed a little bit higher, longer and thinner than a hyphen. For easy visual reference, it’s the same width and thickness as the plus sign.

A true minus sign is placed higher, longer, and thinner than a hyphen. Same as the thickness and length of a plus sign.


Here’s how you type a true minus sign:

Windows: ALT + 2212
Mac: Unfortunately, there’s not an easy shortcut. If you’re able to pick from a library of symbols, it is unicode character 2212 (U+2212).



En Dash

En dash, as you could probably assume, has the length of the letter ‘N’, and is used in two ways:

  1. To indicate a range, like April 13 – 16, 2017. Basically imagine it as a replacement for the words “to” and “from.”
  2. To signify a connection or contrast between a pair of words, such as “father–son relationship.“

En Dash is the length of the letter N


Here’s how you type an en dash:

Windows: ALT + 0150
Mac: Option + Hyphen



Em Dash

Similar to the en dash, the em dash has the length of the letter ‘M’, and it indicates a break or pause in a sentence. It can be used like parentheses or used to detach one end of a sentence to the body. For example, “it was very sunny today—which made me happy.”

Em dashes are also used in writing to show a sudden break or interruption in a conversation, or when naming the author of a quote.

Em dash is the length of the letter M


Here’s how you type an em dash:

Windows: ALT + 0151
Mac: Option + Shift + Hyphen




Ampersand is the Latin symbol for “et” which means “and,” and it is used when part of name (Johnson & Johnson) or in a title. Designers like to play with the lettering and visual design because it’s a beautiful symbol, but beyond that the ampersand should NOT be used in a sentence—with the exception of social media posts that have character limits.

Ampersand is only used for titles and names, never in a sentence. Ex. Incorrect: I like Spider-man & Captain America. Correct: I like Spider-man and Captain America.




This might seem like I’m neurotic as I'm pleading to the world for better typographic etiquette, but truthfully this is a small thing that can help sustain credibility and professionalism. Think of a time when you sat through a presentation, and your attention was lost because the presenter made a spelling/grammatical error. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal, but it did affect your attention.

There are many distractions in the world, but as a professional/company/organization who has a mission that needs to reach an audience, we have the ability to fix the distractions that are within our control.


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Topics: Digital, Design and Technology

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