Whether you choose to use em dashes or en dashes, pick one and use it consistently. A common mistake is using both forms in the same.
An em dash, or long dash, is used:
Thousands of children—like the girl in this photograph—have been left homeless.
My son—where has he gone?—would like to meet you.
One thing’s for sure—he doesn’t want to face the truth.
Things have changed a lot in the last year—mainly for the better.
Note that there is no space added on either side of an em dash.
Em dashes are especially common in informal writing, such as personal emails or blogs, but it’s best to use them sparingly when you are writing formally.
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If your keyboard can't produce a dash, you will have to resort to a hyphen as a stand-in. In British usage, we use only a single hyphen to represent a dash - like .
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These resources provide guidelines for using punctuation in your writing.
Hyphens (-) are used to connect two or more words (and numbers) into a single concept, especially for building adjectives. Likewise, some married women use hyphens to combine their maiden name with their spouse’s name:
They are also a necessary component of the numbers 21 through 99:
Although they can be used as substitutes for the word “to” when discussing value ranges and scores in games, it is better to use the word in formal writing situations than the punctuation:
Hyphens are also used in syllable breaks when words cannot fit completely on a line, and must be continued on the following line. With word processors and the ability to automatically move whole words, though, this has become less common:
Dashes (—) can be used to indicate an interruption, particularly in transcribed speech:
The chemistry student began to say, “An organic solvent will only work with—” when her cell phone rang.
They can also be used as a substitute for “it is, “they are,” or similar expressions. In this way they function like colons, but are not used for lists of multiple items, and are used less frequently in formal writing situations:
They can also be used as substitutes for parentheses:
Note that dashes are double the length of hyphens. When you type two hyphens together (--), most word processors automatically combine them into a single dash.
The Purdue OWL maintains a number of resources on punctuation you can visit to learn more:
Dashes can be used to separate extra information or to mark a break in a sentence. They appear in some of the same places as commas, colons, semicolons, and parentheses. However, they are generally considered more informal than these punctuation marks, so should be used sparingly and selectively in academic writing.
The two main types of dashes are the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). Make sure not to confuse dashes and hyphens (-).
Dashes can be used in pairs to mark off additional information or an aside that is not essential to the understanding of the rest of the sentence. Here they function similarly to parentheses or a pair of commas.
Dark, leafy greens—such as spinach, kale, and chard—are an important part of a healthy diet.
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
A dash can also be used to mark a break in a sentence in place of a semicolon or colon. In this context, dashes are often used for emphasis or to signal a change in tone.
There was no arguing with her—she was set in her opinion.
As their names suggest, the em dash is approximately the length of the letter m, and the en dash the length of the letter n. Both are longer than the hyphen (-).
The em dash is used for setting off information or marking a break in a sentence. No space should be used on either side of an em dash.
In the interrogation room, the detective questioned the suspect—who sat shifting nervously—on his whereabouts the night of the incident.
Strictly speaking, the en dash has a different function, but you will often see it used in the same way as an em dash. In this context, the en dash takes a space on either side.
In the interrogation room, the detective questioned the suspect – who sat shifting nervously – on his whereabouts the night of the incident.
This usage of the en dash is especially common in British English, while the em dash is more prevalent in American English. Style guides differ on this point, but your main focus should be on consistency.
The en dash is also used to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time. You can read it as representing “to” or “through”.
The company had a successful 2018–2019 fiscal year.
This job demands frequent evening and weekend work in addition to regular 9:00am–5:00pm hours.
The document was heavily redacted, with pages 46–52 removed altogether.
Whether you choose to use em dashes or en dashes, pick one and use it consistently. A common mistake is using both forms in the same sentence or text, or spacing the punctuation incorrectly.
Hyphens are used to link words together. They should not be used in place of dashes.
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When people talk about using dashes, they are almost The most common way to use the em dash is to.
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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Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: When to Use Them and How to Type Them. The hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash are all horizontal marks of.