Hyphens and Dashes—A Guide

By Jonathan Ly

You’ve probably seen them all over before, horizontal lines like “-,” “–,” and “—,” but do you really know the differences between them all? If not, don’t be worried, you’re like the majority of people out there.

Introduction to the Three Types of “Horizontal Lines”

There are three types of horizontal lines that are regularly used: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. They have widely different uses, so you don’t want to get them confused. You need to have this in your life—once you learn, you’ll be writing words and phrases like the stylish writer you really are.

Hyphens

A hyphen’s main usage is to make compound modifiers, or in short, words that modify other nouns. You probably knew this already, given there are words like brother-in-law, self-esteem, or low-budget. However, according to the English language, you can compound any amount of words to amplify your intention. Let’s look at some examples:

  • The lazy-yellow couch needs to be moved out of my apartment.

Here, the word “lazy” isn’t describing the couch as we would assume were the hyphen not there; instead, it’s describing the color yellow as a mellow tone.

You can also do this to a number of words to create new chains, like in the sentence: The low-budget-19th-century-built museum still stands today.

En Dashes

En dashes are the easiest out of the three to use, but since they’re used rarely, you’ll want to refer to your instructors and citation styles to confirm their appropriateness. The en dash is the length of two regular hyphens (–), and it gets its name because it’s roughly the size of an “N.”

Here’s the rule:

You use en dashes between numbers and destinations, that’s pretty much it.

You can write sentences like, “For more information on the subject of en dashes, see sections 12 – 13.”

They can also be used with destinations like, “I just bought my Seattle – Mars round trip ticket.”

However, watch out. If you’re including “from” or “between” in your sentence, then forgo the en dashes and use “to” and “and” respectively to preserve parallel construction.

E.g., “Today, I’m going to do anywhere from 10 to 1,000,000 push-ups” or “I’m going to write between 10 and 100 books in my life.”

Em Dashes

Em dashes are the length of three regular hyphens, and aptly get their name for being the length of an “M.” Em dashes are where you can get really stylish—that is, if you’re up for the challenge.

The three main rules of em dashes are

  1. Parenthesis—using the dashes to accentuate a parenthetical statement. This is effective when you want to make your audience pay extra attention to what would normally be seen as less essential.

E.g., “ If you’re ever thinking about going to space—which I highly advise against—make sure they invent a laser gun first.”

  1. Break in thought or conversation—you often see this in books or dialogue

E.g., “For the last time Charles, I’m telling you, you can’t be a darn astronaut”

“but—”

“No ‘buts’! Back to your room!”

  1. Replacement of a semicolon or comma for more emphasis—this one’s pretty self-explanatory

E.g., You’re probably tired of these examples by now—but if you aren’t, here’s another one!

How to Insert En Dashes and Em Dashes in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word will normally auto-correct these for you.

En Dash: This is how you format the structure (word-space-hyphen-hyphen-space-word); e.g., “0 — 100”

Em Dash: Structure: (word-hyphen-hyphen-word); e.g., “It’s imperative that you breathe air–so that you don’t die.”

You can also use key commands. On a PC, you can use ALT + 0150 to produce an en dash or option + – on a Mac. For em dashes key ALT + 0151 on a PC or option + shift + – on a Mac.

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