Hyphen, En Dash & Em Dash: Do You Know the Difference?

by ProWritingAid Sep 28, 2016, 0 Comments

Hyphen, En-dash, em-dash?

Are you aware of these three little lines and how they’re used in punctuation?

-Hyphen

⎻En Dash

—Em Dash

Let’s talk a little more about each.

Hyphens

Most writers know when to use a hyphen. Any time you’re using a compound word, you normally hyphenate it, such as:

  • Eye-opener

  • Over-exposed

  • Forty-five-year-old woman

We have a great article, When Do I Need to Hyphenate? that goes more in-depth into hyphens and where they should be used.

En Dash

This is such a little-used bit of punctuation that the typical keyboard doesn’t have a dedicated key for it like they do the hyphen. Most word processing programs have a way to insert it though when you need to use it. The shortcut on the most recent version of MS Word is CTRL + MINUS SIGN (on the numeric keyboard).

You can tell the en dash is a little wider than the hyphen, but narrower than the em dash. Use an en dash to represent a span or range of numbers, like:

  • The 2016⎻2017 school year

  • Read chapters 4⎻8 tonight

  • The Red Devils win 3⎻0

Finally, use an en dash when you’re showing connection, direction, or conflict:

  • The London⎻New York flight

  • The north⎻south highway

  • The conservative⎻liberal debate

Em Dash

The em dash is highly versatile. It can take the place of commas, colons, or parentheses in your sentences. Most word processing programs will autocorrect 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.

  • We thought Mr. D—— was the meanest bus driver on the route.

  • “You’re an a——,” she said, turning her phone off.

If you need to blank out an entire word, you can use two or three em dashes in a row. Choose one length and use it consistently throughout your work.

  • The rape victim, ———, took the stand the next day.

As with any good thing in life, use em dashes sparingly and with great purpose.


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