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Don’t get your nuts confused with mutton

July 2023

Reading time: 3 minute(s).

We are grammar pedants. The scattering of commas like confetti through a piece of text is enough to send us, rocking, into a darkened room.

The lack of correctly placed full stops and apostrophes in text speak and social posts not only renders the messaging difficult to understand, but also does a disservice to our beautiful language.

But one of our biggest bugbears is the complete confusion around hyphens and dashes. Let’s get something straight: They are not the same; they are not interchangeable; and yes, it does matter.



Don’t they look the same?

No. They don’t.

And to confuse matters even more, there are actually two types of dash – an en-dash and an em-dash. A piece of trivia for you – back in the days of noisy newspaper hot metal typesetters, the similarity in sound of an ‘en’ and an ‘em’ led to them being called nuts and muttons to avoid confusion when being shouted across the room.

So, this is a hyphen-

This is an en-dash –

And, this is an em-dash —

As you can see, they become progressively bigger.  Ironically there is a hyphen in em-dash – and there we have an en-dash. See the difference? No? OK, well let’s look at how they are used to help your understanding.

What is a hyphen (-) used for?

  • Joining words: Connect words together to form a compound word. For example, “mother-in-law”, “far-fetched” and “empty-handed”. It helps clarify that the words are connected as a single concept.
  • Word division: Splitting a word at the end of a line when it doesn’t fit entirely and needs to continue on the next line. This is commonly seen in printed text.

  • Prefixes and suffixes: Create a compound word or avoid confusion. For instance, “re-examine”, “pre-approval”, and “ex-president”.
  • Expressing a range or span: Use a hyphen to indicate a range between two numbers or dates. For example, “pages 10-15”, “1990-1995” or “Monday-Friday”.
  • Making an adjective: Connect words that work together as a single adjective before a noun. For example, “state-of-the-art technology”, “long-term solution”, or “part-time job”.

And what is a dash () used for?

You’ll probably be pleased to hear that the em-dash, the biggest of the trio, is more likely to be seen in American writing, while in the UK the en-dash is the preferred option.

  • Emphasise or indicate a break in thought or sentence structure: Use a dash to indicate extra information or a sudden shift or interruption in the sentence. For example:

I saw the car – an old, beat-up Volkswagen – parked by the roadside.




The party was going well – until the power went out.

  • Replace commas, colons, or parentheses: Dashes can be ­used to replace other punctuation marks to create emphasis or clarity. For example:

My favourite fruits – apples, oranges, and strawberries – are all in season.

The ingredients for the recipe were as follows – eggs, flour, and sugar.




­­Do you still have questions? Drop us a line to share your grammar pedantry.

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July 2023 | Julie Palmer