February 18, 2023
While perfect punctuation can go unnoticed (that's kind of the point), misuse can subvert your authority and trustworthiness to readers.
Punctuation is a powerful tool for writers. It can help you clarify your text and control your words’ rhythm and emphasis. But who knew there were so many rules to follow? The hyphen, n-dash, and m-dash can be tricky little fellows, but with a bit of practice, you’ll be using them like a pro in no time.
These three small marks serve different functions, and it’s important to use them in the correct context to communicate your message effectively. This blog post will explore when and where to use the hyphen, n-dash, and m-dash in your writing.
hyphen ( – )
en dash ( – )
em dash ( — )
The hyphen (-) is the shortest of all three horizontal lines, although it might not look like it at first glance. On some devices and in some typefaces, the hyphen and the n-dash might look identical. The hyphen has several uses, but the most common is to join two words together to form a compound word.
Here are some of the most common use cases for the hyphen:
Some words are so commonly used together that they’re often thought of as one word. In these cases, it’s appropriate to use a hyphen to join the words together. This is called a compound word.
Examples of compound words:
The hyphen can also be used in compounds where the first word is an adverb that modifies the second word. In these cases, the hyphen helps to clarify the meaning of the sentence. Examples of adverb-adjective compound words:
Note that there are also compound words that are written without a hyphen. These are called closed compounds, usually formed when the two words are less closely related. Examples of closed compounds:
Finally, always use a hyphen with the following prefixes: all-, ex-, and self-.
You can also use the hyphen to indicate a break in a word. This is most common when the word is too long to fit on one line. These cases are called a breaking hyphen or an optional hyphen. This type of hyphen helps make your text more readable, but it mainly applies to print media.
Most word processors will use non-breaking hyphens by default to prevent words from being split up at the end of a line. The word will instead move down to the next line in its entirety. This can be changed in the settings, but it’s usually unnecessary.
You can also use the hyphen to group numbers together. It makes long numbers more readable and is common in technical writing. For example, phone and social security numbers are often written with hyphens to group the digits. We also use hyphens for all compound numbers between 21 and 99, as well as fractions.
Phone number: 555-123-4567
Social security number: 12-345-6789
You can also use the hyphen in some words with double vowels. We add a hyphen to these words to prevent them from being misread. In these cases, adding a hyphen isn’t strictly necessary, but it can help to avoid confusion.
Examples of words with double vowels:
The en dash
The en dash (–) is a little longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em dash. It got its name because it’s about the width of the letter “n” in most typefaces. You might also see it written as n dash. Let’s review some of the most common use cases for this mark.
The en dash is most commonly used to indicate a range of values. That can be anything from dates and times to page numbers and scores. When using the en dash to show a range, don’t use any spaces on either side of the dash. You can usually replace the word “to” or “through” with an en dash.
Examples of ranges:
9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
The final score was 3–0
As you can see, we can replace the word “to” with an en dash in all of these examples. Both are technically correct, but using an en dash can make your text look cleaner and more streamlined.
It’s common to see ranges written with an en dash when they include unfinished or open-ended values. For example, we might write “ages 5–10” to indicate that the range consists of all children between the ages of five and ten, including those five or ten years old.
If the range includes negative numbers, you might want to use a word like “to” instead of an n dash to avoid confusion. For example, a temperature of “-5 to 10 degrees” is easier to parse than “-5–10 degrees.”
Conflicts, connections, and direction
You can use the en dash to show conflict or connection. It can compare two opposing sides, from political rivalries to sports rivalries. It’s also common to see the en dash used geographically to show that a road or other route connects two places.
The United States–Mexico border
The Knicks–Lakers rivalry
The Canada–U.S.–Mexico trilateral
The en dash is sometimes used in place of a hyphen in compound adjectives. This is primarily an issue of style, but it can help to make your writing look cleaner. In general, you should use a hyphen, but some complex adjectives look better with an en dash. These usually have three or more elements.
An example of complex adjectives could be: “An e-book–only library.” In this case, we want to differentiate between “e-book” and “only,” so we use an en dash. The first hyphen clearly shows that “e” and “book” go together, while the en dash shows that “only” is a separate element.
Another example could be: “Post-WWII–era art.” In this case, we want to show that “Post-World War II” is a single element, while “era” is separate. We could also use a hyphen here, but an en dash makes it clearer.
The em dash
Finally, we have the em dash (—). As you can guess from the name, this dash is about as wide as the letter “m” in most typefaces. You might also see it referred to as an m dash. Let’s go over some of the most common ones now.
Replacement for parenthesis
The em dash is often used to replace parentheses. We often see this in informal writing, such as stories and blog posts. While parentheses are technically correct, they can make your text look cluttered. Replacing them with em dashes gives the reader a brief pause while keeping your writing flowing smoothly.
When using em dashes in this way, you’ll need a pair of them acting as bookends for the information you want to set apart. As for spacing, it’s common to see em dashes with no spaces on either side, but some style guides recommend putting a space before and after. It’s a matter of preference, but be consistent with your choice.
Here are some examples:
Content writing—whether for the web or print—can be a daunting task
The novel—which was published in 1867—is considered a classic.
This system—though it’s not perfect—is the best we have.
Appositives with commas
Appositives are words or phrases that rename or explain another word or phrase. They can help provide extra information without disrupting the flow of your writing. Although most writers use commas to set off appositives, m dashes are helpful in some cases.
For example, if there are already commas within the appositive, you might want to use m dashes instead to avoid confusion.
Here are a few examples:
The three of us—my sister, brother, and I—left home at 18.
The main question words—who, what, when, where, why, and how—are used to gather information.
Give my manager a call—Jane, not John—and she’ll help you out.
You can also use em dashes to create lists, similar to how we use bullet points. This style is common in fiction writing and can give your text a more casual feel.
Lions, cheetahs, tigers—they all share common features with my house cat.
The conference center has everything we need—meeting rooms, a catering kitchen, and more.
Blue, green, red—these are the colors of the rainbow.
Em dashes are also used to show interruptions. This can be verbal, like in the middle of a sentence, or literal, like in the middle of a word. In either case, the em dash creates a decisive break that’s easy for readers to see.
In the following example, we use an em dash to show that the speaker was interrupted in the middle of their sentence. “I was going to go to the store, but then I remembered that I—Oh, never mind, I found my keys.”
Em dashes can also mark sharp changes in tone or show sudden shifts in thought. The em dash emphasizes the contrast between the two phrases in the following sentence.
“I’m not sure what I want for dinner—I know, I’ll just order a pizza!”
How to create hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes on your keyboard
So how do you create these dashes on your keyboard? It depends on which one you want to use and the language in which your keyboard is set.
The hyphen (-) is easy—it’s right there on the hyphen/underscore key. The key’s location might vary depending on your keyboard, but it’s usually next to the 0 key on the number row. Just press it and move on with your writing.
The en dash (–) is a little less common, but it’s still easy to create. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and press the hyphen key. Hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys on Windows, then press the hyphen key.
The em dash (—) is the most versatile of the bunch, but it’s also the trickiest to create on a keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and Shift key, then press the hyphen key. On Windows, hold down the Alt key and Ctrl key, then press the hyphen key.
Using a word processor like Microsoft Word or Pages, you can also create these dashes by finding the symbols or special characters in the insert menu.
The bottom line
Hyphens and dashes are just one aspect of quality content writing. There are dozens of other punctuation and grammar rules that can go unnoticed if you’re not a trained or professional writer. For help presenting your brand through high quality content, including blogs, press releases, social media copy, and more, check out Draft.
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