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Dash It All


Hyphens and em dashes and en dashes, oh my! It’s enough to make any writer’s head spin. In this post, I’ll help you get them—and keep them!—all straight.

Dashes and hyphens are common pieces of punctuation that can really improve your writing—if you know how to use them. Hyphens show relationship between words and numbers. Em dashes lend your writing a bit of excitement. And en dashes show a range in an elegant manner. Today, a brief rundown of what they are and how to use them.

The Hyphen (-)

It’s just a little horizontal line, but the hyphen is a handy piece of punctuation. Among its many uses:

  • Joining two words in a compound word, such as a phrasal adjective: brand-new blogger
  • Joining two names in a compound name: Robert Smith-Jones
  • Showing word divisions: tan-ta-lize
  • Separating characters: 555-123-4567
  • In email addresses and URLs

Note, however, that adverbs that end in -ly are not hyphenated in an adjective phrase as a rule: lovingly made mittens. This one trips up a lot of writers but is easily corrected. 

Check out more punctuation lessons on Right Touch Editing’s blog!

The Em Dash (—)

The e -dash is so called because it is the width of the capital m in the same font. Sometimes on the web (and back in the day, on a typewriter), it is represented by two hyphens (), though that’s becoming less of a problem as software gets smarter.

Some style guides put a space before and after it (e.g., AP Stylebook); some don’t have a space on either side of it (e.g., the Chicago Manual of Style). Either way, the em dash’s most common use is to set off a part of the sentence, usually with strong emphasis. You could also use a comma, a colon, or parentheses to set off the text, but be sure to match the punctuation’s strength with your words’ emphasis.

Don’t forget that if you set off a word or phrase in the middle of the sentence, you need a matching set of punctuation marks. That is, if you introduce a phrase with an em dash, you must also end the phrase with an em dash. The same applies if you go with a less-emphatic punctuation mark.

Grammar Girl has a helpful post on em dashes versus colons. This has stayed with me:

A dash also introduces extra material, but, well, a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark. A dashing young man is certainly not an ordinary young man, and if you’re dashing off to the store, you’re not just going to the store, you’re going in a flurry.

The En Dash (–)

The en dash is half the width of an em dash. I see fewer en dashes in everyday copy; it seems to be relegated to formal writing. Which is too bad, because the en dash is a useful little piece of punctuation:

  • It can represent the word to in a range: 2001–2009. Used this way, both ends of the ranges are included, which is a fine point often ignored. And with the en dash, you don’t need the from to precede your range: The Christmas sale, running Saturday–Monday, will offer great savings.
  • It can join a phrasal adjective when part of phrase is an open compound: New Mexico–based.
  • It can represent a range with no ending: 2021–.

For more on hyphens and dashes, check out:

Today’s article originally published on The Writing Resource on December 11, 2009.

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