The Short and Long of It
Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes help readers clearly understand your message. They look similar but have different uses in your business writing. They help indicate pauses and emphasis in your text.
Your business writing is meant to connect with customers. Clear explanations help them engage with your business. Your text works to convert them to a purchase and support their post-buying experience.
Although each punctuation symbol is a line inserted into text, they are of different lengths and perform different functions. Let’s take a look at how they work to make your writing as clear as possible.
You need to know how to create these marks. Different operating systems, like Windows and Mac keyboards, place the symbols in different places. Fortunately, this Wiki guide tells you how to create the symbols on various keyboards.
A hyphen’s main purpose is to link two words together:
- He lived in a high-rise block.
- That's a counter-intuitive statement.
- I'm visiting my mother-in-law this weekend.
The hyphen is the shortest of the linear punctuation marks. Use the hyphen to join two or more words together. Use no spaces before or after a hyphen.
Modern online usage has eliminated hyphens in many previously hyphenated words: for example, we use email instead of e-mail nowadays. Consult an online dictionary for the current spelling.
Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of words that use hyphens.
You should hyphenate words when they come together to modify a noun. The compound word functions as an adjective to describe the noun. Here are some common examples:
- high-speed rail
- part-time job
- run-down building
- up-to-date technology
These words are hyphenated when they modify a noun, but not when they are used as adverbs:
- She is a part-time French teacher.
- She teaches French part time.
Just to complicate matters, spellcheck and editing software cannot distinguish between compound adjectives and other uses, so you need to know your hyphen usage.
Many words are hyphenated to create clarity for readers, particularly in the context of letter collisions, prefixes, and family relationships.
- co-operate (letter collision)
- bell-like (letter collision)
- anti-nuclear (prefix)
- post-colonial (prefix)
- son-in-law (family relationship)
- great-grandmother (family relationship)
Common prefixes that require a hyphen include self, ex, and all:
- At this high school, we place great value on self-expression.
- My ex-boyfriend has finally moved on.
- This is an exciting, all-encompassing theory.
We also use hyphens with certain suffixes, such as based, style, elect, and free:
- We are an Atlanta-based company.
- There's no beating our home-style food.
- The President-elect will make her speech shortly.
- Are these cupcakes gluten-free?
Use hyphens with written numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine and with fractions like two-thirds or one-fifth. On the other hand, if you use an article with the fraction instead of a number, e.g. a third, it does not require a hyphen.
The hyphen’s main purpose is to glue words together.
While hyphens generally glue words together, dashes indicate a series or sequence, or they set phrases apart. There are two types of dashes, short and long, which are named after the space they take in typesetting. The en dash takes up the space of the letter N and the em dash takes up the space of the letter M.
Dashes work to bring attention to a phrase or indicate a phrase as additional information. Like other punctuation marks, dashes are indications of how a reader may think about information.
The En Dash (Short Dash)
Primarily, the en dash connects numbers and sometimes words to indicate "up to and including" (or "through").
- His college years, 2008–2012, marked the beginning of his interest in astrophysics. (inclusive time period)
- Join us Friday, March 20, 10:00 A.M.–4:00 P.M. for our workshop. (inclusive time period)
- See Chapters 5–9 for more information. (documenting and indexing)
- ABC Pharmaceutical’s initial trials (2019– ) (inclusive time period without end date, indicating it is ongoing)
The en dash comes to the rescue when connecting hyphenated phrases in a compound adjective, or two open compound phrases.
- The post–World War I years (open compound adjective)
- The nursing home–hospital connection (open compound to single word)
- Quasi-public–quasi-judicial body (two hyphenated phrases)
Notice that there are no spaces before or after these en dashes. Sometimes, spaced en dashes will be used in place of the em dash functionality described below. Whether these are en dashes with spaces either side, or em dashes with no spaces, will depend on your business's style guide.
The Em Dash (Long Dash)
The em dash sets phrases apart from the main body of a sentence. Often called simply the dash, you want to use them with discretion, especially in business writing. Otherwise, your text can end up looking like a page from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (see image below). The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommends using parentheses if more than one element is set off in a sentence.
Amplifying or Explaining
An em dash is used to set off text that amplifies or explains an element in a sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon may perform a similar function. Use the em dash to emphasize your amplification.
- The Renaissance artists who broke with spiritual tradition—Giotto, Titian, Masaccio—represented human form over saintliness.
- The watchman—he had been sleeping half the night—arrived in an angry mood.
- She outlined the strategy—a strategy that would, she hoped, clarify on-page and off-page SEO.
- My friends—well, my former friends—disappeared when I lost my job.
Separating a Subject from a Pronoun
Use the em dash to separate a subject, or a series of subjects, from a pronoun that introduces the main clause. We’re getting deep into grammar terms here, but examples will help you understand.
- Agreement—that was the team feeling he resolutely pursued.
- Broken contracts, petty complaints, and obdurate clients—these were the obstacles she tried to conquer as a freelancer.
- Markson, who first conceived the idea; Barber, who organized the capital; and North, who implemented the software—these were the founders who were responsible for the startup success.
With Other Punctuation
When a question mark or an exclamation mark occurs in a sentence, set the phrase off with an em dash.
- All at once Larry—could he have been that blind?—realized he could expand his reach with social media.
- The spreadsheet—Bravo!—filled the remaining cells with the correct formula.
Pro Tip: Use an em dash in dialogue to indicate a sudden break.
“Will he get the required signatures in time?” the CFO asked.
“The hosting site is—” Jerry began, but Mark cut him off.
These explanations and examples for the em dash are standard in American usage. American usage has no space before or after the em dash. UK writers have a different standard. They tend to use a spaced en dash instead of the closed em dash.
US English: However much he tried—and God know he tried!—he couldn’t get the daily tally to balance.
British English: However much he tried – and God knows he tried! – he couldn’t get the daily tally to balance.
Details Give You Clarity
Business writing is all about clarity to help customers understand your business and connect to increase sales. Getting grammar details right helps you communicate effectively. From connecting words and concepts to setting off information, correct usage of hyphens and dashes keeps customers focused on your message.
When you submit articles or white papers for publication, your correct usage will help spur acceptance, putting you ahead of your competition.
With hyphens and dashes, spellcheck and editing software may misinterpret your meaning. When in doubt, check a current dictionary and a style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style. Hyphen usage fluctuates. Knowing the current accepted standard will help you write a well-composed article.