You have probably come across dashes in various works. The ever-useful hyphen is pretty common — and you’ve certainly come across an em dash before. The en dash is a little lesser known but no less important.
Let’s start with the basics. First, we have the hyphen (-). This is the shortest of the dashes. We also use the en dash (–), which is the size of an uppercase N. Lastly, we have the em dash (—), which is the size of an uppercase M. Each has different uses.
While hyphens are extremely useful, they can be tricky. One of the main ways we use the hyphen is to connect a multi-word (or compound) modifier in front of a noun. This makes the sentence clearer and indicates that all of the words in the modifier are describing the noun.
- Correct: The ever-useful hyphen is pretty common.
- Incorrect: The ever useful hyphen is pretty common.
Hyphens become especially important when there are multiple words in the compound modifier, like in the example “the four-year-old child.” The more words in the modifier, the more likely the sentence is to be confusing. However, when a compound modifier comes after the noun, we don’t use hyphens.
- Correct: The hyphen is ever useful.
- Incorrect: The hyphen is ever-useful.
Occasionally, words that look like compound modifiers always take hyphens, like “long-term.” These aren’t all that common and appear in dictionaries with their hyphens.
En dashes act like a very powerful hyphen. One use is for modifiers that contain a compound noun. The en dash signals that more words than one are linked with the other part of the modifier.
- Correct: The Nebula Award–winning author is writing a new book.
- Incorrect: The Nebula-Award-winning author is writing a new book.
Another common use of en dashes is to show ranges. These are found between dates, times, and numbers. However, an en dash cannot be used if the sentence has “from” or another preposition before the range. Then, we have to use “to.”
- Correct: According to pages 394–396, the semester runs May–August.
- Correct: According to pages 394 to 396, the semester runs from May to August.
The keyboard shortcuts for en dashes are Alt+0150 for PCs and Shift Minus for Macs.
Em dashes are versatile and can be used in place of commas and semicolons. These usually follow the same rules as commas and semicolons but add emphasis. These dashes also work to set apart appositives, like a set of commas or parentheses do.
- Correct: They already know — and they’ve got tickets.
- Correct: He was a boy — she was a girl.
- Correct: He — the skater boy — wasn’t good enough.
Unlike hyphens and en dashes, em dashes are less formal and generally shouldn’t be used too much in one paragraph because of their visual impact.
The keyboard shortcuts for em dashes are Alt+0151 for PCs and Shift+Option Minus for Macs.
Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes help improve your writing and give you variation and distinction in your prose.