Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. If you are using an earlier version (Word 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Word, click here: Understanding Hyphens and Dashes.

Understanding Hyphens and Dashes

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated May 7, 2020)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016


Word supports the use of both hyphens and dashes. Actually, it supports three types of hyphens and two types of dashes. It is important to understand how Word handles each of these as they can affect the appearance of your document.

  • Regular hyphens. These are created by simply typing the hyphen key. This is the key that is to the right of the zero key on the keyboard. It is sometimes mistakenly called a dash key. Regular hyphens are used to create compound words, such as "mix-up," or to indicate a minus sign in an equation. If a compound word appears near the end of a line, the second word will be displayed on the next line, if necessary, with the first word and hyphen remaining on the previous line.
  • Optional hyphens. These are created by pressing Ctrl+- (Ctrl and the hyphen key). Optional hyphens are typically used in the middle of a word, between syllables, to indicate where a word should be broken between lines if Word deems it necessary. Optional hyphens are the type inserted automatically when you use the Hyphenation tool in Word. The optional hyphen does not appear on any printout unless it is actually used at the end of a line.
  • Non-breaking hyphens. These are created by pressing Ctrl+Shift+- (Ctrl+Shift and the hyphen key). Non-breaking hyphens are used in compound words to indicate that both words and the hyphen should be treated as a single word when Word is forming lines. In this case, the compound word will never be broken over two lines. It is also helpful to use non-breaking hyphens in phone numbers.
  • En dash. An en dash is a typographic dash that is as wide as a lowercase "n" character. These dashes are typically used to denote ranges of numbers, as in 3–7. You create an en dash by pressing Ctrl and the minus sign on the numeric keypad. You can also create it by holding down the Alt key as you type 0150 on the numeric keypad. If necessary, Word will break a line right after the en dash, not before it. In other words, the en dash always stays with the characters immediately preceding it.
  • Em dash. An em dash is a typographic dash that is supposed to be as wide as a lowercase "m" character. In Word, however, the em dash is twice as wide as the en dash. (The width of the em-dash can vary from font to font.) Em dashes are used in creating breaks in sentences between two separate thoughts. Word will substitute an em dash automatically as you are typing if you type a word, two hyphens in a row, and another word. You can also explicitly enter an em dash if you press Ctrl+Alt and the minus sign on the numeric keypad. You can also enter one by holding down the Alt key as you type 0151 on the numeric keypad. If necessary, Word will break a line right after the em dash, not before it. The em dash always stays with the word immediately before it.

The foregoing items describe the behavior and purpose of each of the hyphens and dashes used in Word. If you are using a dash or hyphen and it does not behave as indicated here, then you may be using the wrong type. For instance, if a word will not break as you expect between two lines, you may be using a non-breaking hyphen instead of one of the other types.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (11025) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Word here: Understanding Hyphens and Dashes.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...


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What is 9 + 3?

2020-05-07 10:27:13

Erik Eilertsen

An em dash when used for an aside or thought break, can also be created by using a normal n dash in this sequence:

The quick - brown fox (it does not do it in this text box but if you go WORD space dash space WORD space then as soon as you type the space after the word that immediately followed the en dash then it will become an em dash (I think from W2010 but certainly in 2016)

2020-05-07 10:24:47


I would add a couple of points:

First, the optional hyphen is sometimes called a "soft hyphen" while the regular hyphen is called a "hard hyphen," defined as a hyphen that is visible wherever it appears on a line. Sometimes users mistakenly use the term to refer to the non-breaking hyphen.

Second, the en dash, padded with spaces, is generated automatically if you type a word, a space, a hyphen , another space, and another word. This is the British style for creating breaks in sentences between two separate thoughts. American newspapers use the padded en dash, too (in lieu of an closed-up em dash). It makes the narrow, fully justified newspaper columns easier to read. (Magazines usually don't do this because their columns are wider.) In most American manuscript styles, it's not correct to use the en dash this way.

2016-01-21 08:45:50


James, I can definitely say that 0172 is NOT the optional hyphen but a logical symbol called the "Not sign". It will not be invisible and will actually print looking like that (¬). 0173 is called a "Soft hyphen" in the Symbol dialog box and seems to be both the optional and non-breaking hyphen. After doing some googling, I think that Word uses it's own "internal information" to tell it when to show this symbol and when to allow or not allow it to break at a line. So it may not be simple enough to just code in 0173; you will have to test it out to see which one Word treats it as. Let me know if you find out. My guess is 0173 is the non-breaking since inserting an invisible symbol isn't easy. You may be out of luck with the optional hyphen.

2016-01-20 12:03:10


rpurosky: Thanks for the comments! So in summary:

regular hyphen "-" (0045)
en-dash "–" (0150)
em-dash "—" (0151)

I found the following 2 additional that may be the missing ones, but would appreciate validation:

optional hyphen? "¬" (0172)
non-breaking hyphen? "­­-" (0173)

2016-01-19 08:53:12


James: Looks like the regular hyphen is character code 45 ASCII decimal. You can see that if you go to Insert, Symbol and highlight the character you're looking for. I know you meant 151 was "em-dash". To find and replace, just copy and paste both symbols involved in the Find what and Replace with boxes of the Find and Replace dialog.

2016-01-18 13:13:35



Thanks for the clear and helpful outline of the 5 types available of hyphen & dashes in Word (especially the hyphens!). However, 2 questions:

1) How can these be used with VBA (you gave the Ascii code for n-dash (0150) & n-dash (0151), but what about the hyphens?).

2) How to find/replace the different types of hyphens?


2016-01-18 09:10:10


Mistake from my tip: I meant "en dash" everywhere I typed "em dash". I always assumed it was an em dash, but just figured out an em dash is quite a bit longer and I may have never used one before. I liked this tip especially in that it forced me to realize there are 3 visibly different hyphen/dash lengths where I always assumed a regular hyphen and "en" dash were the same length. Not in Word!

2016-01-18 09:05:29


I do know that the en dash will sometimes automatically appear (through AutoCorrect?) and replace a hyphen, but do not know every instance when this occurs. One instance for sure is if you type a hyphen after text and hit Enter to start a new paragraph. The hyphen visibly elongates to an em dash. I noticed a hyphen by itself on a line does not do this AutoCorrect; text has to be entered before the hyphen for this to occur.

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