Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash
There are few punctuation mistakes as prevalent as those involving dashes and hyphens. But how exactly do hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes differ? In this article, we find out.
June 2, 2022 · 8 Min Read
The incorrect use of hyphens and dashes is commonplace in all fields of writing. Although the punctuation marks look somewhat the same, their functions are radically different. Use a hyphen when an em dash is needed, and words become compounded instead of a clause being offset. Use an en dash when a hyphen is needed, and the compounded word isn’t compounded at all. Getting it wrong muddies the reading experience for the reader; luckily, the different rules governing these punctuation marks are easy to learn and implement.
Hyphen, En Dash, and Em Dash Side-By-Side Comparison
Of the three punctuation marks, hyphens are the shortest. En dashes are nearly as wide as the ‘N’ letter. Em dashes, the widest of the three, are about the same width as ‘M’.
En dash keyboard shortcuts*
Windows: Press Ctrl + Minus (numeric keypad) simultaneously.
Mac: Press option + hyphen (-) simultaneously.
Em dash keyboard shortcuts**
Windows: Press Ctrl + Alt + Minus (numeric keypad) simultaneously.
Mac: Press shift + option + hyphen (-) simultaneously.
Should en and em dashes be spaced or unspaced?
It is more acceptable to write en and em dashes without spaces. However, you can write them with spaces, too. Whichever method you choose, make sure you remain consistent throughout a work.
Hyphens (-) are used for compounding and dividing words. When two or more words are strung together to form a single word, then this punctuation mark is used. Conversely, words can also be separated with hyphens. However, when separating words, don’t split syllables down the middle.
Hyphen examples (compounds)
William is the go-to guy for good advice.
The building had a worn-out look to it.
It is a well-developed idea.
I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The lake is green-yellow.
A ten-million-dollar idea.
Frederick the Great was a warrior-king.
Hyphen examples (separations)
Strictly speaking, it is not correct to split words with hyphens. Unless there is a very specific reason for splitting them (for example, in educational settings), then whole words should be kept whole.
How do you know if a hyphen is needed?
If dictionaries lack a closed compound version of the word, then you should probably hyphenate it. For example, “paperback” is a single word, so it is incorrect to write it as “paper-back”. The same applies to “doorknob”, “homemade”, “stopwatch”, “haircut” and other closed compounds. There are many good dictionaries, but Merriam-Webster is one of the better resources.
Another rule to remember is that adverbs ending in “Y” are never hyphenated. For example, “He is a well-dressed man,” but, “He is a smartly dressed man.” Both sentences convey the same thing, but the second example is not compounded.
Bear in mind that compounds are also sometimes written as open; that is, spaced without a hyphen. For example, there is no hyphen in “type 2 diabetes”, “sucker punch” or “French Canadian”. Always consult a dictionary or the relevant style guide when you aren’t sure about a hyphen.
En Dash Use
En dashes (–) are used in number and date ranges, directions, scores, and complex compound adjectives.
En dash examples
Pages 20–40 contain the answer.
The years 1740–1790 were of great significance to the kingdom.
The Cowboys beat the Eagles 23–20.A French Second Republic–era belief.
I took the London–Paris train at midday.
August 4–7 is when the festival takes place.
You have to take the Los Angeles–Honolulu–Suva flight to get to Fiji.
En dashes with “to”, “from”, and “between”
When “to”, “from”, or “between” are included in a range, then an en dash should not be used. For example:
I work from 9 to 6. ✔
I work from 9–6. ✘
He played professional tennis from 2001 to 2004. ✔
He played professional tennis from 2001–2004. ✘
The relevant chapter can be found somewhere between pages 120 and 200. ✔
The relevant chapter can be found somewhere between pages 120–200. ✘
Em Dash Use
Em dashes (—) can be used in a variety of ways. Depending on the context, they can be exchanged for commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons. Em dashes are more emphatic than other punctuation marks, which gives them added importance as a stylistic tool.
Em dash examples
He walked to the train carriage—then turned around and ran away.
I was young then—perhaps too young—and I gave no credence to her affections.
The company has recovered well—however, supply chain issues persist.
My friends—Davy, Jamy, and Gavin—were already there.
“I am—” James froze. He tried to finish his sentence, but some great revelation made it impossible for him to do so.
“I was at the barn, checking up on the horses—”
“Don’t lie to me!” she interjected.
He had a few pencils on his person—and a sword.
Em dashes as a stylistic consideration
Em dashes can and should be used to vary pauses and offsets. In creative writing, em dashes can lessen the reliance on commas ( , ), parentheses ( () ), colons ( : ), and semicolons ( ; ). However, em dashes stand out more, so the writer should be careful not to overuse them. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
Passage with an overreliance on semicolons:
James took the train; he never returned. I have no idea where he is; even Lucy is unsure.
James took the train; he never returned. I have no idea where he is—even Lucy is unsure.
Punctuation should be functional, not noticeable. The repeated use of semicolons in the first passage is eye-catching. In the rewritten passage, a semicolon was exchanged for an em dash. This improves readability and emphasizes the offset clause. Let’s have a look at another example.
I painted the house. Afterward, I heard the gunshot and ran away. I ran as fast as I could down the road. When I arrived in town, I went straight the police station. The police weren’t there, so I had to hide.
I painted the house—then I heard the gunshot. I ran as fast as I could toward town. When I got there, I went straight to the police station—but the police weren’t there. I had to hide.
In the rewritten version, the inclusion of em dashes adds urgency to the narration.
Em dashes are also a useful tool for adding sentence variety to a passage. Have a look at the following example:
I flew to New York. When I got there, I rented a car and raced home. Molly was nowhere to be found. At this stage, I started panicking. The next morning, I read every newspaper I could get my hands on. I still had no idea where she was.
The above passage consists of three short simple sentences, and three complex sentences. There are a few problems with this example, but foremost is its repetitive sentence structure. Let’s see how a single dash can be used to alleviate this repetition.
I flew to New York. When I got there, I rented a car and raced home. Molly was nowhere to be found. The next morning, I read every newspaper I could get my hands on—but I still had no idea where she was.
The addition of a single dash and the “but” conjunction adds variation to the passage by merging the last two sentences—a simple and complex sentence, respectively—into a compound-complex sentence. This can be done with a semicolon (and no conjunction) as well; however, the em dash adds emphasis to the passage’s conclusion.
Em dashes can be useful. However, like everything else in writing, make sure you don’t overuse them.
Awkward punctuation has a detrimental impact on prose. If you need help with the grammar, punctuation, structure, or paragraphing of your work, have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s professional editing services.