To begin, we need to distinguish between three different—and essential—punctuation marks in the English language.
The em dash (—), the en dash (–), and the hyphen (-) all have roles to play in modern English writing. But, believe it or not, they function quite differently. When you use dashes, it’s important not to confuse the three.
Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you hear someone talking about “a dash,” without any further explanation, assume they’re referring to an en dash, which looks like a minus sign.
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In order to use dashes, you’ll first need to know how to type them. Unfortunately, there’s no en or em dash key on a standard keyboard. Instead, you’ll have to use a keyboard shortcut.
The hyphen key can be found between the plus sign and the 0 on your keyboard. Type shift before pressing the key.
On a Mac, type alt/option + hyphen (-).
On a PC, type ctrl + minus sign (–). The minus sign can be found on the numeric keypad to the right of your keyboard.
If you’re using a word processor, like Microsoft Word, you can also insert an en-dash from the Insert>Symbol menu.
On a Mac, type alt/option + shift + hyphen (-).
On a PC, type alt + ctrl + minus sign (–). The minus sign can be found on the numeric keypad to the right of your keyboard.
If you’re using a word processor, like Microsoft Word, you can also type double hyphens next to each other to produce an em dash.
What Is an Em Dash?
Few punctuation marks have the spunky personality of an em dash. The length of an em dash comes from the width of a traditional typesetter’s capital letter M—that’s how the dash gets its name. Em dashes can replace parentheses, commas, colons, and semicolons. Although they’re often compared to en dashes and hyphens, em dashes have more applications than almost any other special character. For this reason, be cautious about overusing the em dash. This punctuation mark can be stylish and strong, adding variety to your syntax, as long as you remember to use it sparingly.
Examples of Sentences with Em Dashes
Use em dashes to identify a parenthetical clause (an inessential phrase that adds information) in a sentence.
Use em dashes to identify a parenthetical clause—an inessential phrase that adds information—in a sentence.
An em dash can replace an ellipsis…or do you disagree?
An em dash can replace an ellipsis—or do you disagree?
Sometimes, writers use em dashes in the place of commas, as a way to add emphasis.
Sometimes, writers use em dashes in the place of commas—as a way to add emphasis.
“In dialogue, an em dash can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate an abrupt interruption.”
“In dialogue, an em dash can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate an abrupt interruption—”
Semicolons work well; however, em dashes seem less formal.
Semicolons work well—however, em dashes seem less formal.
“If you’re interrupting dialogue with action…” we gesture to the quotation marks “…use an em dash here and here.”
“If you’re interrupting dialogue with action”—we gesture to the quotation marks—”use an em dash here and here.”
When you have appositives with commas, like descriptions, lists, or lengthy phrases, an em dash helps to set them apart.
When you have appositives with commas—like descriptions, lists, or lengthy phrases—an em dash helps to set them apart.
Additional Uses for the Em Dash
Three em dashes appear in bibliographies, when an author’s name is repeated.
———. Grammar Rules. New York: Fancy Publisher. 2019.
Two em dashes may signify a curse word or a censored character’s name.
Miss —— doesn’t like it when people say ——.
Anytime an author introduces an abrupt change or exclamation, an em dash would be an appropriate choice.
She was walking slowly—wait!—in the wrong direction.
What Is an En Dash?
Unlike an em dash, an en dash has a smaller number of appropriate uses. It’s mostly used as a substitute for the word “through.”
Although most informal publications don’t use en dashes, you might see them in major newspapers, such as The New York Times, or in research periodicals. Anywhere formal typography appears, an en dash might pop up.
The length of an en dash comes from the width of a traditional typesetter’s capital letter N—that’s how the dash gets its name.
En dashes can be used to separate a date range or a span of time.
April 5–June 4
7 p.m.–8:30 p.m.
The August–September issue of a magazine
When you describe a flight or itinerary, you can use an en dash.
The Atlanta–Chicago flight
The north–south highway
Anytime you describe a range, score, or conflict, an en dash is appropriate.
The 24–5 basketball game
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict
There are other common uses for en dashes. Some style guides recommend using en dashes for compound words, such as merry–go–round and family–run. Others suggest a hyphen would be better.
What Is a Hyphen?
You’ll use hyphens in a number of different circumstances, but the reason remains the same. Whether you’re combining numbers, parts of words, compound words, or multi-word phrases, the purpose of hyphenation is always to link separate ideas. Here’s a trick. Remember that the minus sign (–, en dash) should not be used to add words together to form one idea. Instead, use the hyphen!
How to Hyphenate Numbers
When writing out the numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine, always use a hyphen. So, any number in between those two (21-99) requires a hyphen in order to be spelled properly.
You’ll also want to use hyphens to write fractions. And, whenever a number is used as an adjective, you should hyphenate the number in its entirety.
I owe him one-third of my salary.
He ordered the two-and-three-quarter size.
Some style guides also recommend using hyphens to separate date ranges, timeframes, and spans of that sort. Other style manuals suggest that an en dash would be better. While neither choice is incorrect, you should try to maintain consistency and use the same symbol every time. Be sure not to add spaces on either side of the hyphen.
Examples with Hyphens:
Examples with En-Dashes:
Multiple hyphens should always be used when writing ages. As an exception to this rule, any time the word “years,” “months,” or “days” is written as a plural, you don’t need to hyphenate.
The dog was a two-year-old.
The dog was two years old.
Second-hand books and off-brand paper towels have something important in common. Yes, they’re both paper products. What else? Both of these descriptions make use of compound adjectives! These modifiers that consist of two or more words, even though they form a single adjective. Compound modifiers typically appear in a sentence before the noun they describe. When compound modifiers come after the noun, you generally don’t need to hyphenate (unless it’s a common phrase that’s always hyphenated for clarity).
I like second-hand books.
I buy books second hand.
She bought over-the-counter medicine.
She bought the medicine over-the-counter.
In the last example, “over-the-counter” is a phase that’s almost always hyphenated. For that reason, it doesn’t matter whether the phrase comes before or after the verb—you’ll hyphenate it either way.
As with compound adjectives, compound verbs consist of two or more words strung together. Many times, people choose unusual, multi-word verbs to add humor to writing. With hyphenated words, a writer can turn a phrase that doesn’t normally describe an action into a verb.
He spider-walked across the dance floor.
She green-thumbed her way to greatness.
Lots of everyday nouns are made up of multiple words, such as “United States” or “key chain.” Sometimes, depending on the compound noun in question, the sentence won’t make sense without hyphenating those words. Luckily, you have a way to show that they should be linked together. Without a hyphen, a reader would place emphasis on the wrong syllable or even have trouble understanding the meaning of your sentence.
Nancy has always been the class treasurer.
Nancy has always been a detention-getter.
In the first sentence, you don’t need a hyphen. In the second sentence, the phrase “detention getter” is unusual and might not be understood without the hyphen.
Generally, proper nouns are not hyphenated. As an exception to this rule, some people put a hyphen between two surnames to indicate when names have been combined.
When I got married, I changed my name to Elizabeth Walker-Smith.
Before that, my name was Elizabeth Walker.
Although most prefixes do not require a hyphen, some style guides recommend them for the following prefixes:
These suffixes are also frequently hyphenated:
In addition to the examples listed above, many style guides recommend adding a hyphen for clarity in circumstances where you’d otherwise have a repeated letter or a proper noun without capitalization.
Interregional becomes inter-regional.
Midjune becomes mid-June.
What to Do When You’re Unsure
Of course, the English language is always in a state of flux. A compound word that’s written with a hyphen today could become mainstream in the future. Once it’s commonly used and recognized, the compound may no longer require a hyphen. That’s what’s happened to compound nouns like “high school” and “ice cream.” Another example—for a long time, people spelled “email” with a hyphen (e-mail). Eventually, email evolved into the current accepted spelling.
Whenever you’re unsure about whether or not to use a hyphen or an en dash, refer to your favorite style guide. Often, within organizations, managers offer employees (or students) an organization-wide style guide so that everyone can see the preferred spelling for tricky compound words. For instance, a sneaker brand might require that employees, advertisers, and vendors write “fair–trade” with an en dash. By alerting everyone to the company’s preferred spelling, the management team can maintain consistency across all branded materials.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.