Is it acceptable to use a single hyphen as a dash (as the BBC does)?

Example from BBC News:

Venezuela - a major oil producer - has been heavily affected by the fall in oil prices on international markets.

  • 1
    I'm guessing they have a guide that allows only a limited character-set. Perhaps a British version of ASCII. So hyphens, dashes, minus-signs, etc., all have to be simulated using that one available character.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 14:08

4 Answers 4


Like many institutions in the UK, the BBC has published its entire style guide online. The style guide is massive and detailed and is the result of hundreds of combined years of writing and editorial experience. Like other major style guides, we can assume that each rule is well-considered, and since all style guides change, we know that rules are often reconsidered.

Before looking at the BBC's rules, let us talk briefly talk about American English and its use of hyphens and dashes. The post pointed to by @tchrist is an incredibly concise and clear explanation of American usage of hyphens and dashes. (Although, it does not explicitly mention not to use spaces.) I have not read an American style guide that dissented on this topic.

The BBC is British, however, so it is possible that they view dashes the way they view colours. In looking through the style guide, I am quite surprised that I could not find any discussion of en-dash or em-dash. In fact, the guide seems quite comfortable interchanging the word hyphen with dash.

All of the relevant pages I could find:

  1. An extensive discussion of hyphens that exactly matches hyphen usage in American English.
  2. A brief mention that a "dash" (of unspecified kind) can substitute for a comma. But the example given is what Americans would call a hyphen, "I heard a voice telling me ‘Come home’ - Ronnie Biggs".
  3. Three different pages stating, "Note that tiebreak scores are inside brackets and separated by dashes." (emphasis added.) But the accompanying example text clearly uses hyphens without spaces. "6-4 6-7 (2-7) 7-6 (7-4)" Pages 1, 2, and 3.

Conclusion: if you are writing for the BBC, your example is required; if you are writing using American style guidelines, then the example you provided is absolutely wrong; and if you are writing using British style guidelines, then I would look for more authorities on the topic.

  • 1
    No, that is not "what an American would call a hyphen". It is a dash. The difference is functional, and it certainly is functioning as a dash no matter what code point is used. Since people who type on an old-fashionened manual typewriter cannot distinguish between lengths, it is up to software to convert them into the right code point. But the difference between a hyphen and a dash – and for that matter, a minus – lies in what they are doing, not what they look like, for what they look like varies greatly. Spaced en dashes are standard in British publishing. That doesn’t make them hyphens.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 14:04
  • It is possible that I overreached. I would have been more precise if I had written,"...what American editors would call..." or "what American law review editors would call...". I honestly cannot recall what I was taught about hyphen and dash when I took "keyboarding" class on manual typewriters 24 years ago. It seems we agree on at least one thing: despite strong consensus in US usage, at least some British have different conventions. Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 15:03
  • The main difference is that spaced en dashes are preferred in the UK, whereas em dashes (usually unspaced, alas) are preferred in the US. When your only key is a ‘-’, it gets used for hyphens, dashes, and minuses, and which one it is depends on the way it is used.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 0:38
  • In my opinion you are too charitable to the BBC here. Nobody else suggests that this is a reasonable thing to do, and (to me) their apparent ignorance of the difference between a hyphen and and the various kinds of dashes suggests actual ignorance of that subject. The BBC is not a literary organization, after all. Inconsistency between "e.g." and the wildly incorrect "eg" and the inclusion of disgusting colloquialisms like "capped up" for "capitalized" in their own style guide are further examples of this. Commented Jun 14, 2015 at 20:48
  • @tchrist The example given is objectively a hyphen. Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 15:23

Generally speaking there's little difference between British and American use of dashes, at least as compared to hyphens. The use of a hyphen character (or technically hyphen-minus) made sense in legacy (pre-unicode) systems as the dashes weren't always available and were encoded at different code points in different systems. That hasn't been a good excuse for some time though.

Is possible they're spaced En-dashes but I assume you've checked. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash says that spaced En-dashes and unspaced Em-dashes may both be used as parenthetical dashes.

Using multiple hyphens as a substitute for dashes is useful for avoiding ambiguity but shouldn't be expected in web or print output. It's how LaTeX for example inputs dashes and so you'll see it in text formats -- including here.


This has been covered here before.

No, it is not typographically acceptable to use a hyphen for a dash, but you have mischaracterized the issue. Those are spaced en dashes, which is just fine. If you have only a typewriter, things get confused, but in properly typeset books, there is a world of difference.

You have to judge these things based on what they are doing, not on accidents of fontage.

They are being represented by U+002D HYPHEN-MINUS, but that is an accident of software and ambiguous data entry. They are functioning as dashes, so that is what they are. That’s like when you write a -3 for −3. You are still using what is functionally a minus sign, even if you have typed U+002D and nothing changed it to the preferred U+2122 MINUS SIGN code point.

Technically speaking, Unicode has 27 code points with the “Dash” character property. How they look will vary according to the font selected and the display software. Each of them has its own set of properties that help software determine what to do with line-breaks and such. These are the 27 Unicode Dash=Yes code points:

Code   Glyph Name                                      General Category
U+002D   -   HYPHEN-MINUS                              Dash_Punctuation
U+058A   ֊   ARMENIAN HYPHEN                           Dash_Punctuation
U+05BE   ־   HEBREW PUNCTUATION MAQAF                  Dash_Punctuation
U+1400   ᐀   CANADIAN SYLLABICS HYPHEN                 Dash_Punctuation
U+1806   ᠆    MONGOLIAN TODO SOFT HYPHEN                Dash_Punctuation
U+2010   ‐   HYPHEN                                    Dash_Punctuation
U+2011   ‑   NON-BREAKING HYPHEN                       Dash_Punctuation
U+2012   ‒   FIGURE DASH                               Dash_Punctuation
U+2013   –   EN DASH                                   Dash_Punctuation
U+2014   —   EM DASH                                   Dash_Punctuation
U+2015   ―   HORIZONTAL BAR                            Dash_Punctuation
U+2053   ⁓   SWUNG DASH                                Other_Punctuation
U+207B   ⁻   SUPERSCRIPT MINUS                         Math_Symbol
U+208B   ₋   SUBSCRIPT MINUS                           Math_Symbol
U+2212   −   MINUS SIGN                                Math_Symbol
U+2E17   ⸗   DOUBLE OBLIQUE HYPHEN                     Dash_Punctuation
U+2E1A   ⸚   HYPHEN WITH DIAERESIS                     Dash_Punctuation
U+2E3A   ⸺  TWO-EM DASH                               Dash_Punctuation
U+2E3B   ⸻ THREE-EM DASH                             Dash_Punctuation
U+301C   〜  WAVE DASH                                 Dash_Punctuation
U+3030   〰  WAVY DASH                                 Dash_Punctuation
U+30A0   ゠  KATAKANA-HIRAGANA DOUBLE HYPHEN           Dash_Punctuation
U+FE58   ﹘   SMALL EM DASH                             Dash_Punctuation
U+FE63   ﹣  SMALL HYPHEN-MINUS                        Dash_Punctuation
U+FF0D   -  FULLWIDTH HYPHEN-MINUS                    Dash_Punctuation

So even when U+002D HYPHEN-MINUS is being used, it is still dash punctuation. It’s just the worst one to to use from the point of view of accurate typography, a vestige of the old teletypes and manual typewriters that no longer applies.

If the BBC websites aren’t converting the code point into U+2013 EN DASH per UK publishing norms, that’s just laziness, the sort of thing you have in people’s cell phone text messages, not professional typesetting.

  • 1
    One problem is that standard keyboards insert a hyphen first, and only convert it to a dash if you follow this pattern: word-space-hyphen-space-word-space (which then converts to word-space-dash-space-word-space). If you deviate from this in any way, eg by cutting and pasting or accidentally typing 2 spaces, it will remain as hyphen, necessitating tedious manual corrections if you are a perfectionist. Pain in the proverbial. Maybe the BBC have special keyboards that allow you to easily select a hyphen or dash, I have no idea.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 11:58
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    @mynamite it's got a lot more to do with software than keyboards, but apart from that your argument holds.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 13:42
  • @ChrisH Yes I realise that, unfortunately the keyboard is the tool by which we implement the software, so until manufacturers start putting 2 separate keys for hyphens and dashes, we're stuck with it.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 14:50
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    @Mynamite Naw, one doesn’t need a new keyboard: one merely needs to learn how to actually use the keyboard one has. So for an example on a Mac, the distinction is trivial: use Option - for an en dash and Shift+Option - for em dash. People are just lazy or ignorant, or they have bad software. There is just about infinitely more to typography that which code points one can mindlessly key in directly without a custom setup.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 16:02
  • 2
    @TChrist: so what's the point of having distinctive codes and distinctive names for the various types of hyphens and dashes, if you can call a hyphen an "en-dash" - just because it is enclosed by spaces? Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 23:51

Are you asking whether it is acceptable in America? I believe most reputable style guides (for example, Elements of Style (Strunk&White) and Chicago Manual of Style)) will tell you it is not.

The example in the question calls for em-dashes (without spaces).

  • Bringhurst does recommend spaced en dashes.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 15:54
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    I wouldn't mind seeing references to reputable style guide notations that concur with your post. This answer feels more like a comment than an answer.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 1:04
  • @SrJoven: --------> Elements of Style (Strunk &White) 1st chapter "Elementary Rules of Usage", item 8 ---------> Chicago Manual of Style (section 6.84 and preceding) chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 4:26
  • 1
    Your comment belongs as part of the answer. Why leave it in an ephemeral comment? I'm not arguing that your answer is wrong, but given the other answers, and the unsupported assertion you made within your sparse answer, one might be interested to know how you came to your conclusion. Or not. Comments aren't forever.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 4:41
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    I'm in general agreement that dash punctuation is probably not relevant specifically to English Language (most of these types of questions are not). This might be better discussed in meta, though. Grammar is not style; style is not grammar; and punctuation in itself isn't necessarily monogamous to English Language. Especially this usage.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 4:57

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