Use this guide to learn about the different types of dashes and how to use them properly in your writing.
A dash is a little horizontal line that floats in the middle of a line of text (not at the bottom: that’s an underscore). It’s longer than a hyphen and is commonly used to indicate a range or a pause. Dashes are used to separate groups of words, not to separate parts of words like a hyphen does. There are three forms of dashes: em, en, and the double hyphen.
The most common types of dashes are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). A good way to remember the difference between these two dashes is to visualize the en dash as the length of the letter N and the em dash as the length of the letter M. These dashes not only differ in length; they also serve different functions within a sentence.
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Em dashes save the day when other punctuation would be awkward. For instance, em dashes can replace parentheses at the end of a sentence or when multiple commas appear in a parenthetical phrase.
Colons enable a writer to introduce a clause that amplifies whatever came before the colon. They are more formal than dashes. However, em dashes are more emphatic than colons. When you want to generate strong emotion in your writing or create a more casual tone, use em dashes. Compare these sentences:
Writers and transcriptionists replace unknown, censored, or intentionally omitted letters with em dashes. In these cases, em dashes appear in pairs or threesomes.
Recall that en dashes are slightly shorter in length than em dashes. En dashes may look similar to em dashes, but they function in a much different way.
The en dash is often used to indicate spans of time or ranges of numbers. In this context, the dash should be interpreted as meaning either “to” or “through.” Consider the examples below:
The en dash may also be used to indicate a connection between two words. Use an en dash when you need to connect terms that are already hyphenated or when you are using a two-word phrase as a modifier. When the dash is used in this way, it creates a compound adjective. See the following examples:
There are two ways to use dashes in a sentence, each one with a distinct purpose. The first is the single dash. Because we have already.
A hyphen joins two or more words together while a dash separates words into parenthetical statements. The two are sometimes confused because they look so similar, but their usage is different. Hyphens are not separated by spaces, while a dash has a space on either side.
Generally, hyphens are used to join two words or parts of words together while avoiding confusion or ambiguity. Consult your dictionary if you are not sure if a hyphen is required in a compound word, but remember that current usage may have shifted since your dictionary was published.
There are some cases where hyphens preserve written clarity such as where there are letter collisions, where a prefix is added, or in family relations. Many words that have been hyphenated in the past have since dropped the hyphen and become a single word (email, nowadays).
In some cases though, a hyphen does change the meaning of a sentence.
Use a hyphen with compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
In written fractions place a hyphen between the numerator and denominator except if there is already a hyphen in either the numerator or the denominator.
Use a hyphen when a number forms part of an adjectival compound
Dashes can be used to add parenthetical statements or comments in much the same way as you would use brackets. In formal writing you should use the bracket rather than the dash as a dash is considered less formal. Dashes can be used to create emphasis in a sentence.
The dash (—) is a mark of punctuation used to set off a word or phrase after an independent clause or a parenthetical remark (words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence). Don't confuse the dash (—) with the hyphen (-): the dash is longer. As William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White explained in "The Elements of Style":
"A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses."
There are actually two types of dashes, each with different uses: the em dash—also called the "long dash," according to Oxford Online Dictionaries—and the en dash, which doesn't have another name but falls between the hyphen and em dash in terms of length. The en dash is so named because it is approximately the equivalent width of the uppercase letter N and the em dash is roughly the width of an uppercase M.
Merriam-Webster says the word dash comes from the Middle English word dasshen, which probably derives from the Middle French term dachier, meaning "to impel forward." One current definition of the word dash is "to break," which would well describe what a dash does in syntax.
"The em dash...is frequently used in particular works as a substitute for the comma or for the colon, and is found particularly serviceable in rhapsodical writing, where interrupted sentences frequently occur."
MacKellar noted several specific uses for the dash, including:
The last use would today be an en dash, which indicates a range.
Though the Associated Press does not use the en dash, the press service nicely describes how other styles do use the shorter dash. Some other styles call for en dashes to indicate ranges of dates, times, or page numbers, or with some compound modifiers. For example:
To create an en dash using a keyboard on a Windows-based system, hold down the Alt key and simultaneously type 0150. To create this punctuation mark on a Macintosh-based system hold down the Option key and press the Minus key [-]. American Psychological Association notes that you would use the en dash for:
Angela Gibson, writing for the MLA Style Center, a writing resource for the Modern Languages Association, says the organization uses an en dash when a single compound adjective is a proper noun, as in:
She notes that the MLA also calls for an en dash when a compound in the predicate position includes a proper noun:
The AP, which does use em dashes, explains that these punctuation marks are used:
AP style calls for a space on both sides of an em dash, but most other styles, including MLA and APA, omit the spaces. On a Windows-based system, you can form an em dash on a keyboard by holding down the Alt key and typing 0151. To create the em dash on a Macintosh-based system, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus key [-], notes Techwalla, adding that alternatively, you can press the Hyphen key twice and press Space.
There are two basic ways to use an em dash in a sentence:
After an independent clause: Author Saul Below, in "My Paris," provides an example of using an em dash after an independent clause:
"Life, said Samuel Butler, is like giving a concert on the violin while learning to play the instrument—that, friends, is real wisdom."
To set off words and phrases: Writers have effectively used em dashes to shoehorn a parenthetical thought or remark into a sentence, as this quote illustrates:
"Copper Lincoln cents—pale zinc-coated steel for a year in the war—figure in my earliest impressions of money."
—John Updike, "A Sense of Change," The New Yorker, April 26, 1999
For a tiny punctuation mark, the dash has sparked an unusual level of debate among writers, grammarians, and punctuation experts. "The dash is seductive," says Ernest Gowers in "The Complete Plain Words," a style, grammar, and punctuation reference guide. "It tempts the writer to use it as a punctuation-maid-of-all-work that saves him the trouble of choosing the right stop." Some have expressed support for the dash:
"The dash is less formal than the semicolon, which makes it more attractive; it enhances conversational tone; and...it is capable of quite subtle effects. The main reason people use it, however, is that they know you can't use it wrongly."
—Lynne Truss, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"
Other writers strenuously oppose using the mark:
"The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete?"
—Norene Malone, "The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash." Slate, May 24, 2011
So, next time you look in your toolkit of punctuation marks and see the en dash or em dash just waiting to be put to work, ensure that you are using these marks for the right reasons and following the rules discussed. Ask yourself if your parenthetical remark will add nuance and insight to your writing or just confuse the reader. If it's the latter, return the dashes to your punctuation tool bag and use a comma, colon, or semicolon instead, or revise the sentence so that you can omit the dreaded dash.
Gowers, Ernest. "Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English." Rebecca Gowers, Paperback, Penguin UK, October 1, 2015.
Dashes and hyphens—learn the difference between the hyphen, en dash and em dash and the rules of use for these commonly confused.
The hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash are all horizontal marks of varying lengths. Each functions quite differently from the others. Below are definitions of each, explanations for when to use them, and instructions for typing them on both PCs and Macs.
The hyphen is the shortest of the three and is used most commonly to combine words (making compounds such as “well-being” and “advanced-level,” for example) and to separate numbers that are not inclusive (phone numbers and Social Security numbers, for example).
On computer keyboards, the hyphen appears on the bottom half of the key located on the top row between the “0” and the equals mark (=).
Most people use the hyphen when they need a minus sign in mathematical equations. Some argue that the actual minus sign sits lower than the hyphen, but at least in Microsoft Word, inserting the mathematical minus sign from the symbols list renders the same mark as using the hyphen on the keyboard.
In many instances, correct hyphenation can be a complicated issue. Elsewhere on this site, we discuss the use of hyphens to create compound words and hyphenated adjectives. Here, however, our focus is on the two kinds of dashes.
The em dash is the mark most of us picture when we hear the term dash. It is significantly longer than the hyphen.
We use the em dash to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. Dashes can be used in pairs like parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a phrase, or a clause (as we’ve done here)—or they can be used alone to detach one end of a sentence from the main body.
Dashes are particularly useful in a sentence that is long and complex or in one that contains a number of commas, as in this example:
When we confuse the em dash with the hyphen, we make a sentence virtually impossible to read. If we had used a hyphen in place of each dash two sentences ago, it would seem as though we had hyphenated two pairs of words in the sentence: “parentheses-that” and “clause-or,” neither of which makes any sense.
A good rule of thumb is to reserve em dashes for those places where the comma simply doesn’t provide a strong enough break. If a comma (or a pair of them) works, use it.
Parentheses tend to downplay an idea; they suggest that the information in them is helpful but not necessary. Em dashes draw attention to the information they enclose or set apart. Typically the writer is telling the reader that the information being set off by em dashes is important.
The en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen but not as long as the em dash. (It is, in fact, the width of a typesetter’s letter “N,” whereas the em dash is the width of the letter “M”—thus their names.) The en dash means, quite simply, “through.” We use it most commonly to indicate inclusive dates and numbers: July 9–August 17; pp. 37–59.
Many people were not even aware of the distinction between the en dash and the em dash until the advent of word processors, when software programs enabled us to use marks of punctuation that once had been available only to professional printers.
When using the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash, most style books advocate putting space neither before nor after them. One exception is, of course, when the hyphen is used as a minus sign. The other exception is with a hanging hyphen (see, for example, the word “nineteenth” in the phrase “nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature”). By definition, a hanging hyphen will have a space after it but not before it.
Computer keyboards lack individual keys for either of the dashes. (The symbol above the hyphen is an underline, not a dash.) Before word processing, we had to make do by typing two hyphens. Now we have options.
Note that not all keyboards around the world are the same. We have heard from our readers in countries outside the U.S. that the following shortcuts don’t apply to their keyboards. That said, here are guidelines for typing on many keyboards:
British/Canadian style guides seem wildly inconsistent on the issue of the em and en dash. Some say to use the en dash instead of the em dash, while others go so far as to advocate using the hyphen, advice that would lead to confusion, as we have noted above. Our British and Canadian readers—and, indeed, any English-speaking reader outside the U.S.—should consult the style manual to which they default.
The esteemed Oxford University Pressstyle guide explains how to use both the em and en dashes, so we can assume that at least this authoritative source advocates using both.
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© 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2019.
Writers have three different dashes at their disposal: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Most of us are familiar with hyphens and their uses. They're.