En dashes and em dashes are little-used bits of punctuation. Less common than hyphens (which have a dedicated key on your keyboard), en dashes and em dashes are nevertheless important grammatical symbols.
Let's take a look at how to use each.
You use an en dash to represent a span or range of numbers, like:
You can also use an en dash when you’re showing connection, direction, or conflict:
The em dash is highly versatile. It can take the place of commas, colons, or parentheses in your sentences. Most word processing programs will auto-correct two hyphens typed in a row into an em dash.
Use em dashes to enhance readability as they can be more emphatic than the mere comma.
- When she realized her mistake—a full three years later—it was by then too late to rectify the situation.
Compare these two sentences, where em dashes replace parentheses and notice the emphasis:
A multitude of hues (red, orange, yellow, and brown) washed the trees in color.
A multitude of hues—red, orange, yellow, and brown—washed the trees in color.
You can use two em dashes to represent missing bits of words, whether you don’t know them or you want them intentionally omitted.
- “You’re an a——,” she said, turning her phone off.
As with any good thing in life, use em dashes sparingly and with great purpose.