Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes, oh my!

Let’s talk about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Most everyone knows what a hyphen (also referred to as a dash) is and its purpose, but you may not have heard of en and em dashes. Well, today is your lucky day! Once you know what they are, you will start to notice them everywhere.

I’ll start with the hyphen. The hyphen is a common punctuation mark. It’s used to separate numbers (e.g., telephone numbers 800-555-1212; Social Security numbers, 001-01-0001; combination lock codes, 93-18-5) and to indicate in writing when we’re spelling something out (e.g., My name is Sabrina, S-a-b-r-i-n-a).

Hyphens are also used to join two or more words that are modifying a noun. For example, the small armed dinosaur. Without the hyphen, readers may think this is a miniature dinosaur carrying a weapon. But when a hyphen is added: the small-armed dinosaur, it becomes clear that it’s a dinosaur with small arms (a T-Rex!). Hyphens help to clarify our words and improve readability.

Here is another sentence in need of hyphens: We cater to our ultra high net worth clients.
Without the hyphen, it sounds like this company’s favorite client may possibly be Snoop Dogg. But what they probably meant was: We cater to our ultra-high-net-worth clients. (The rich clients. So possibly still Snoop Dogg but for different reasons.)

And how about this confusing headline: Scientists discover parasite eating bats.

Without a hyphen, this could mean they’ve discovered a parasite big enough to eat bats! But when a hyphen is used: Scientists discover parasite-eating bats, we now know it’s the bats that are doing the eating. Phew! So remember to use your hyphens so you don’t scare people!

Ok, here is where I have to tell you about an exception to this rule. You knew there had to be an exception, right? After all, this is the English language. You don’t want to use a hyphen when the modifying word is an adverb that ends in ly (e.g., generously, highly, incredibly, etc.). So in the sentence, I want to eat at that highly rated restaurant, you would not insert a hyphen at “highly rated” because highly is an adverb that ends in ly.

Let’s move on to the en dash! The en dash is a lot like the hyphen, but it’s a little different. It’s called an en dash because it’s the width of the letter n on a typewriter. (Back in the day, people typed on typewriters! I know, it sounds crazy.)

En dashes are used in all sorts of number ranges to take the place of to:

  • The preschool accepts children ages 2–5
  • The conference will be held Jan 2–11
  • Your homework is to read chapters 12–14

But an en dash shouldn’t be used if the word from precedes the number range, as in: The museum will be closed from January 1 to March 31.

If you want to use an en dash in place of to, you need to delete from:
The museum will be closed January 1–March 31.

En dashes are also used in place of hyphens when modifying a compound word that doesn’t take a hyphen, such as World War II, peanut butter, or Game of Thrones:

  • The United States and the Soviet Union both became superpowers post–World War II
  • My dog loves peanut butter–flavored treats
  • Many people are buying Games of Thrones–related merchandise

An en dash can also be used in place of to in directions: the New York–Chicago train.

To create an en dash, hold down Ctrl+Minus (Windows) or Cmd+Minus (Mac). Make sure to use the numeric keypad minus key, not the dash key. You can also choose Symbol from the Insert menu, click the Special Characters tab, highlight the en dash, and click Insert.

And that brings us to the em dash! Once you learn what this little mark is capable of, you’re going to love it. Like the en dash, the em dash gets its name from being the exact width of the letter m on a typewriter.

An em dash has a lot of fun uses. It can be used in place of a colon, as in:
I have lived in the following states—Massachusetts, California, and Georgia.

In place of parentheses:
My weekend wardrobe—t-shirt, sweatpants, sneakers—is my favorite.

In place of commas:
The house—with its large windows and high ceilings—seemed larger than it actually was.

To connect two independent clauses:
The cat was not a fan of the dog—and not surprisingly, the dog was not thrilled with the cat either.

To set off a part of a sentence that you want to emphasize:
My friend asked if he could stay with me for a few days—and stayed for a month!

You can put a space on either side of the em dash — if you like, or you can use it with no space on either side—it’s up to you.

The em dash is also used to indicate an interruption in dialogue, as in:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Interrupting cow.”
“Interrupting co—”

To create an em dash, hold down Ctrl+Alt+Minus (Windows) or Cmd+Opt+Minus (Mac). Make sure to use the numeric keypad minus key, not the dash key. You can also choose Symbol from the Insert menu, click the Special Characters tab, highlight the em dash, and click Insert.

If the intricacies of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are too much for you to handle, don’t worry—help is available. Contact us to learn more about our same-day proofreading and editing services.

Next post topic: Homophones (also called homonyms)—words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

Author: Sue McGrath