Hyphens and Dashes

Before I get into the details, I want to go over how to visually recognize the difference between a hyphen and a dash.


Two Types of Dashes

There are actually two kinds of dashes that you’ll see in print: em-dashes and en-dashes.

Dating back to early printing days, the em-dash is a line the length of a printed m, as in Monster:

—     em-dash

The en-dash is a line the length of the printed n, as in Nadja:

–        en-dash



The hyphen is the shorter than both of these, though probably the one you’ll use the most in your writing.

-          hyphen

The hyphen is often used for connecting compound words, such as self-esteem or co-op or for connecting a pair of adjectives before a single noun:

generic-looking postcard*

book-length manuscript*

*Note that these won’t have hyphens when the nouns came first, as in “the manuscript is book length” and “the postcard was generic looking.”


Using En-Dashes

En-dashes are commonly used to connect sequential numbers and dates:


July 3–August 2

They are also used with compound adjectives, or adjectives that describe a term or phrase longer than one word. For example:


pre–Middle Ages


Using Em-Dashes

Finally, em-dashes are used in place of commas, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses, especially when extra emphasis is intended, as in the following quotes from The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman:

“Now go—it’s getting lighter—hurry back to your room before anyone sees you.”

“But Lord Faa, this ghost—I think it’s the ghost of one of the kids!”

Using hyphens and en- and em-dashes in your writing is not only correct in many circumstances, but it adds depth and interest to your writing. Now that you know how, be sure to give it a try.

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