Dashes: A Basic Guide to Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes

Author: Melissa Ingram

“You mean there’s more than one kind of dash?”

A what dash?”

“Huh?”

These are common responses to my feedback regarding dashes when reviewing courses, storyboards, or any other written material.

There are, in fact, several kinds of dashes, but here I’ll address the three most common ones: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—). All three have one thing in common—connecting things that are related—but each one is distinctly different. Let’s take a look at each of these dashes and dig into some details.

 

Hyphen (-)

Technically, a hyphen isn’t a dash at all, but I’m including it here because many people think of it as a dash—and often use it where one of the dashes should be used. The hyphen is the shortest of these three horizontal punctuation marks. Sometimes a hyphen is used at the end of a line of text to split a word that won’t fit in the given space, but its most common function is to connect words or parts of words to form a compound word with a new meaning.

While there are many hard-and-fast rules for using (or not using) a hyphen, I’m not addressing all of them here. I’m simply including hyphens to point out that, while they are useful, they are not interchangeable with real dashes.

Here are some examples of compound words that use a hyphen.

Examples

My mother-in-law is visiting in May.

The LHT Group’s last get-together was a blast!

Our time-consuming review process ensures that we deliver a quality product.

During the follow-up meeting, the project manager assigned each of us additional tasks.

Quick Tip: Over time, some hyphenated words lose their hyphens (e.g., e-mail is becoming email, and ice cream used to be ice-cream). Because of this, it’s helpful to check an up-to-date dictionary (such as Meriam Webster or Dictcionary.com) to see if a word is hyphenated or not.

 

En Dash (–)

The en dash connects two things that are related by time or distance, or a range of numbers. The en dash is approximately twice as long as the hyphen, and gets its name because it is the same length as the letter “n.” Here are some examples of the en dash in action.

Examples

The team conference call occurs weekly at 11:00–12:00. (This example connects time.)

Diane walks 40–50 miles a week. (This example connects distance.)

Please read pages 12–24. (This example connects numbers.)

Ben’s fishing trip is April 2–8. (This example also connects a range of numbers, i.e., dates.)

Quick Tip: You can usually substitute the words “to” or “through” in place of the en dash.

 

Em Dash (—)

The em dash connects an additional thought—or extra information—to the main idea in a sentence. The em dash sets this extra information apart in a dramatic way. In a sense, the words between the em dashes become the focus of the sentence. The em dash is longer than the en dash and gets its name because it is the same length as the letter “m.” Here are some examples of the correct way to use an em dash.

Examples

The LHT Group uses a variety of tools for tracking quality issues—but we always defer to our client’s preferred tool.

Note that the overall seat time—and the seat time assigned to each module—is an estimate.

Jim—with scotch in hand—became fast friends with the bartender.

I love punctuation—especially the em dash!

Quick Tip: Use em dashes sparingly (unlike I’m doing in this blog). They should only be used for dramatic effect or for special emphasis. If you need to include extra information within a sentence, but it does not need to be the focus of the sentence, use commas or parentheses. If you want to indicate a pause in dialogue, use an ellipsis—you know, the dot-dot-dot thing (…).

 

How do I add an en dash or an em dash in Word?

Now that you have a basic understanding of the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes, and when to use each of them, you might be wondering how to add them to your Word doc.

Hyphens are easy—there’s a key on your keyboard to the right of the “0.”

En dashes and em dashes aren’t so obvious. Follow these steps to add an en dash or an em dash to your Word doc:

Insert tab > Symbol > More Symbols > Special Characters

There are shortcuts built into Word, and more shortcuts along the way to Special Characters, but if you’re not sure which dash you’re looking at, go to Special Characters because the dashes are labeled.

 

These are just a few basic, but important, rules governing the use of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. For more information, check out Grammar Girl, GrammarBook.com, the Chicago Manual of Style, or send me an email at mingram@thelhtgroup.com.

 

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