The difference between a dash and a minus sign

A reader asked about the difference between a minus symbol and an N-dash (thanks Tem).  I had to do a bit of homework on this.

Unicode (the standard for electronically encoding text information) has separate codes for the minus sign, hyphen and N-dash.

Below you can compare…

Symbol
hyphen
minus sign
N-dash
M-dash
-


f-f
f−f
f–f
f—f

To look closely at the differences, use ‘Ctrl’ and spin your mouse wheel to zoom in/out on most browsers, or just zoom in with your fingers on a tablet.

If you want to insert a ‘proper’ minus sign in Word, here’s how: 

Go to ‘insert’ / ‘symbol’ / ‘more symbols’. This opens a tool showing all of the characters for every font on your computer.  It would be very hard to pick the right symbol from the map, but in the field ‘character code’ you can enter a code that finds the right one…

Symbol Unicode
hyphen
minus sign
N-dash
M-dash
-


f-f
f−f
f–f
f—f
002D or 2010
2212
2013
2014

Only an obsessive typography freak could tell whether you used a minus sign or an N-dash.  Here’s how: The minus sign is slightly thinner and has a sliver of space between itself and the adjacent characters.

Please note: These characters are rendered very differently on different devices. I’ve viewed this page on some tablets where, in the table above, the symbols all look the same. Very disappointing. On my PC in Chrome or Firefox, the minus sign looks a wee bit shorter than the n-dash. But in the WordPress editor the minus sign looks 50% longer than the n-dash! This probably illustrates software inconsistencies – which might suggest it is pointless to obsess about the pixel-level differences between the various options for Unicode minus signs.

Can I use a hyphen as a minus sign?

Sure, but it isn’t ideal.  Note that the hyphen is a bit lower-down on the line of text than the minus sign and the dashes, plus it is very short – it looks too low and too small when used in mathematical expressions.

More information about dashes:

When to use the hyphen, dash, n-dash and m-dash

Insert an n-dash or m-dash on a web page or blog

Quickly insert an n-dash or m-dash in Microsoft Word


Comments

  1. Bruce says

    Is there a keyboard shortcut for a minus sign? I know the shortcut for an N-dash but I have an editor who can tell the difference!

    • Mister Punctual says

      Hi Bruce,
      Three answers:
      1. On a Windows computer with a keyboard that has a proper numerical keypad, hold down ALT and type 45. This inserts the ANSI character for minus which is sadly the same as the hyphen. There’s some chance your editor thinks this is the right one.
      2. In Word, go to Insert – Symbols – More Symbols – enter Character Code 2212 – press Shortcut Key button – type a shortcut such as CTRL-hyphen – Assign – Close. Now this shortcut will insert a minus sign that’s in-between the hyphen and the n-dash.
      3. Type 2212 then (with no space) hit ALT-X. That also inserts the mid-length minus sign. (Thanks Fitoschido for this one.)
      Cheers,
      Ken

      • Bruce says

        Thanks Ken! That’s great. Our editor certainly knows his hyphens from his minus signs. He probably also knows his minus signs from his N-dashes, so I will create a shortcut as you suggest and use proper minus signs.
        Thanks again,
        Bruce.

  2. Christian F. says

    Actually, I would suggest looking at 2012 and ALT-X to create a minus sign. From the examples you posted, the minus sign looks slightly thicker, vertically, than the en dash. When I compare 2212 versus 2012 in Word, it appears to me that 2012 produces the slightly thicker character.

    And because I had to try all the characters from 2010 through 2014, I would like to ask your opinion on what you think 2011 and ALT-X creates: it looks like a hyphen but slightly shorter and vertically thicker (and it changes my typeface to MS Gothic, for some reason).

    • Mister Punctual says

      Hi Christian,
      According to MS Word, 2210 is a hyphen, 2012 is a dash, 2013 is an en dash, 2014 is em dash. The missing one in that sequence, 2011, isn’t represented in the ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ font set, for that code, as far as I can see. Word says 2212 is a minus sign.
      This stuff gets more complicated the more closely you look at it. For example, some ASCII/html symbol charts list…
      - as “hyphen/minus”,
      – as “hyphen/ndash”, and
      ­ as “hyphen”.
      Three hyphens in one character set, and they’re all different and/or not included in all fonts. Oh—I’ll bet you can’t see a character on the 3rd line above, because so few fonts have a character for ASCII number 173. Whew.
      No point losing sleep over a 1-pixel difference in the width of 3 different minus signs, I say. If an editor told me my minus sign was too skinny, I’d print a page with every ANSI, UTF, Windows or ASCII character that resembles a minus symbol and say “here are 14 sorts of dashes and hyphens plus a bunch of minus signs and other symbols. Which one would you like me to use as a minus sign?”
      This pages gives a glimpse of how absurdly complex digital font characters are: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_encoding
      The complexity and inconsistency stems, I think, from thousands of programmers doing their own things and creating separate standards and probably being more interested in the tech than the characters themselves.
      Ultimately, I think a good reference on these issues is not MS Word, not the character charts, but a book like the Chicago Manual of Style. http://www.amazon.com/The-Chicago-Manual-Style-Publishers/dp/0226103897

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