How to Use an En dash, Em dash and Hyphen

hyphen, en dash, em dashWe all know what a hyphen is: that tiny horizontal line that shows a break in a word that starts on one line and jumps to the next:

She phoned me during my after-
noon break, so I missed her call.

Hyphens also join words to clarify meaning or to form a single idea from two or more words:

    • small-business owner
    • son-in-law
    • fifty-five
    • 7-year-old
    • self-esteem

The hyphen, however, is just one of three horizontal lines that help us communicate clearly. There are two more: the en dash and the em dash.

En Dash

The en dash, so named because it is about as wide as a capital letter N in your chosen font, shows duration or span. Use it where you might otherwise use to:

    • Children ages 3 – 5 get in free.
    • Please bring 2 – 4 dozen cookies to the party.
    • You’ll find the passage on pages 17 – 19.

But avoid the en dash to show duration when you use from … to or between … and:

    • The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953.
    • The theater will be open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for a special event.

Em Dash

The em dash, so named because it is about as wide as a capital letter M in your chosen font, shows an abrupt change in thought within a sentence or an emphatic pause:

    • I am tired of — or should I say completely disgusted with — the partisanship in Congress.
    • We will go to New York to see Hamilton in May — if my tax refund arrives by then.
    • After waiting for what seemed like forever in the terminal — the flight was three hours late — I finally saw my son.

An em dash also sets off an author’s or composer’s name at the end of a quotation:

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” — Mark Twain

How to make a dash

    • To create an en dash on a PC, press the ctrl+minus keys.
    • To create an em dash on a PC, press the ctrl+alt+minus keys.
    • To create an en dash on a Mac, press the option+hyphen keys.
    • To create an em dash on a Mac, press the option+shift+hyphen keys.

Associated Press style suggests no space at either end of a hyphen but to insert a space before and after an en or em dash. The Chicago Manual of Style and the American Psychological Association style dictate no spaces with hyphens or dashes.

Hyphens fill many roles

Hyphens fill many more roles than do en and em dashes. For tips on hyphen use, see these past posts:

When Does a Compound Modifier Need a Hyphen?

When do ‘More’ and ‘Most’ Need a Hyphen?

You’ll Love This Hyphen Shortcut

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)