Have you ever noticed that some hyphens seem longer than others? Does it happen because of fonts? Or is there another explanation? Or maybe you’ve never noticed and are wondering what the heck I’m rambling on about! No matter why you’re here, if you read to the end of this post, you’ll better understand the world of hyphens and dashes.

I previously wrote about how learning to hyphenate adjectives correctly can help you assess potential proofreaders. The rules for hyphen usage can be confusing, but with a little bit of effort and study, you should be well on your way. 

But once you get that clear in your head, you notice something else. You keep seeing these different-looking hyphens. What are these mysterious punctuation marks? How do you even type them? When and why do you use them? Help!

Hyphens are hyphens, but are dashes always dashes (or hyphens)?

In my post about hyphen usage, I explained I was confused about hyphen usage. I wanted to understand the rules so I could use them myself. As I started digging into hyphens, I learned that not all hyphens are created equal. In fact, they aren’t hyphens at all.

In this post, I’m going to discuss hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. As per almost everything related to English, there are no absolute rules. There are guidelines. And depending on which guidelines you follow, usage will vary somewhat. But again, as per usual, what’s important is that you are consistent with your usage.

You’re likely already familiar with hyphens. But perhaps you aren’t so familiar with en dashes or em dashes. Hyphens are the shorter of the three punctuation marks. En dashes are a little longer, and em dashes are the longest. En dashes get their name from being about the width of a capital ‘N,’ and em dashes get their name from guess what? That’s right—being about the same width of a capital ‘M.’

An image of text showing the difference in length of a hyphen, en dash, and em dash.

You can see a difference in width between the three punctuation marks. This may be the first time you’ve noticed this. But now that you know they exist, you’ll see them everywhere. Sometimes used the right way—but often misused.

Hyphens—what are they, and when do we use them?

Hyphens are punctuation marks mainly used to combine words or sometimes numbers (but not always). Hyphens are most commonly used to combine adjectives or nouns and quantifiers (numbers). There are many rules about proper hyphen usage, including when not to use them. For this blog, I’ll stick with the most common use—creating single units.

The best-dressed guest won a prize. We need a hyphen here. Otherwise, the meaning could be interpreted as the best guest who was dressed (as opposed to guests who weren’t dressed). The intended meaning is the guest who was wearing the best outfit. Remember, when placed after a verb, a hyphen isn’t necessary→The guest won a prize for being the best dressed. There is no confusion about the meaning in this case, and thus, a hyphen isn’t needed.

Remember, there are certain cases (as I recently learned) where hyphens are always used. For example, when describing something as “free” of something, you always use a hyphen. In this case, it doesn’t matter whether it comes before or after the verb.

  • His error-free writing flowed naturally. / His writing was error-free.
  • I think sugar-free soft drinks are healthier. / I prefer soft drinks that are sugar-free.

Hyphens are also sometimes used with age. You can say that your sister’s child is two years old. But you can also say that your sister has a two-year-old child. Note that we don’t add ‘s’ to the word year in the second example. “Two-year-old” modifies the noun “child” as a single unit in this usage.

We also use hyphens in phone numbers to make them easier to read. It’s possible to write your phone number as 01098761234. But I think we can all agree it’s much easier to read when written as 010-9876-1234. Your phone number is a single unit of numbers. Hyphens make it easier to digest.

These are the most basic uses of hyphens. If you’d like to know more about hyphen usage, let me know, and I’ll consider delving deeper into the topic later on.

En dashes—for indicating ranges (i.e., from A–B)

En dashes, which you’ll remember are longer than hyphens, are typically used to represent the word “to.” As such, the most common uses are when stating a range in time, distance, or amount:

  • The sale runs from January 5th–10th. 
  • The restaurant is open from 2–10 pm.
  • The Seoul–Busan bike path is popular with tourists.
  • The final score was 21–6.

As you can see, the en dash represents the word “to” in all these instances.

In informal writing, hyphens are often used in these cases. Using an en dash is technically the proper punctuation mark, so I choose to use it. It’s up to you whether you go to the trouble or not.

As with hyphens, there are other rules and uses for the en dash, but this is the most common one. It’s something you can start using in your writing—if you so choose.

Em dashes—for indicating extra information or a break in thought

Em dashes are pretty flexible. They can be used in place of parentheses, commas, semi-colons, or colons. But they’re not the same as any of those punctuation marks.

In something called an appositive (a phrase that provides more information), you can use an em dash instead.

  • His sister, a teacher with ten years’ experience, knew what she was talking about.
  • His sister—a teacher with ten years’ experience—knew what she was talking about.

In this case, it’s more common to use commas, but when the appositive itself contains commas, em dashes can be less confusing.

  • All junior high students, those in grades seven, eight, and nine, must take the test.
  • All junior high students—those in grades seven, eight, and nine—must take the test.

They can also be used in the same manner to replace parentheses (or brackets). The earlier sentence introducing appositives could’ve been written as:

In something called an appositive—a phrase that provides more information—you can use an em dash instead.

The other everyday use for em dashes—the one I use most—is to mark a break in thought within a sentence. Look at my use of em dashes in this post, aside from the previous sentence. They represent something between a semicolon and a colon. For my first section header, I could’ve written:

Hyphens: What are they, and when do we use them?

But I feel that a hyphen would’ve been too formal. And that’s what em dashes are all about—style choice. There are few, if any situations, where you must use an em dash in place of another punctuation mark. But often, they feel like a better alternative.

In essence, em dashes are a matter of style choice. They are more common in less formal writing (like blogs). But in more formal writing, it is likely a better choice to use commas, semicolons, and colons. 

To use a space or not? That is the question.

You’ll note that I don’t use spaces before or after hyphens, en dashes, or em dash in my posts. There are very few cases where it’s acceptable to use a space before or after a hyphen/dash. 

There should never be a space before or after an en dash. Unless…you’re using British English and using the en dash to represent an em dash. But some British style guides do prefer the use of em dashes. Remember when I said there are no hard and fast rules? I wasn’t joking.

Hyphen usage is a little more structured, but using dashes is usually a matter of style. The rules aren’t written in stone, though you can use guidelines to inform your choices. And again, whatever you choose, remember to be consistent.

Oh, I almost forgot—my keyboard doesn’t have en dashes or em dashes!

Hyphens are likely used most often because they’re the simplest to type. Every keyboard has a hyphen on it. But what about en dashes and em dashes? 

These are typically special characters. Depending on which program you’re using, you can go to “Insert→Special character→ search for “en dash” or “em dash”. But that is a ROYAL PITA! Different software programs use various shortcuts for producing en dashes and em dashes. But remembering different shortcuts is confusing.

But there’s a much easier way. It requires a bit of memorization on your part, but with a minimal amount of effort, I’m sure you can master it.

In Windows, to type an en dash, hold down the ‘Alt’ key and type “0150” on your keypad (not the number row at the top of your keyboard). To type an em dash, hold down the ‘Alt’ key and type “0151”—again with the keypad (like I just did there).

You shouldn’t be confused if you remember that the shorter one (the en dash) is the smaller number, and the longer one (the em dash) is the bigger number. For me, 0150 is an easy number to remember. Remembering that 0151 produces a longer dash has helped me keep the two straight. 

For Mac users, the process is a little bit simpler. For an en dash, use “Opt” + “-” and for an em dash, use “Opt” + “Shift” + “-”—piece of cake!

That’s fine for my computer, but what about my phone?

On your Android phone (sorry, I don’t use IOS, but I ‘believe’ the process is the same), just hold the hyphen button. On my phone, the en dash is on the right, and the em dash is in the middle—they look similar, but you can see in the text window they are different lengths (hyphen, en dash, em dash).

That’s what I’ve been doing since I learned about en dashes and em dashes. Once I learned about them and their proper uses, I went back through my previous blog posts. I corrected my incorrect hyphen usage—cause that’s who I am. If you encounter an incorrectly used hyphen or dash in one of my posts, please drop me a friendly message. I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to correct a mistake!

Did that help clear up the confusion for you? If you still have questions, drop me a line! Or, if you want me to go deeper into this topic, get in touch. But now for the crucial question: 😉

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