Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes — There is a Difference
Much like their distant cousins, the colon and semicolon, dashes can be intimidating even to writers who have a good grasp of grammar. Primarily, they act as connectors of words and phrases within a sentence.
The hyphen, en dash and em dash are different lengths, and only the hyphen can be found on your computer keyboard, right next to the zero. The other two are slightly wider and require fancy keystrokes on your PC, like Ctrl+Num Lock – to get the en dash and Alt+Ctrl+Num Lock – for the em dash, both using the numerical keypad.
Before we get into usage, here’s how each one looks:
En Dash: –
Em Dash: —
The smallest of the three symbols, it’s arguably the toughest to master, but at its simplest, the hyphen is most often used to connect compound adjectives — two words modifying the same word — in front of a noun.
- Last weekend, I spent an afternoon babysitting my 3-year-old niece.
- The magazine only uses high-quality photos in its pages.
When compound adjectives follow the noun, the hyphen is not used.
- Last weekend, I spent an afternoon babysitting my niece, who is 3 years old.
- The magazine uses photos that are high quality.
Sometimes, you’ll come across suspended compound adjectives where one or more of the words that modify are separated.
- We are looking for a four- or five-bedroom house.
Other places you’ll find a hyphen are in prefixes such as mid- and ex- or when it’s used to break up syllables in a pronunciation guide.
You’ll find more info about hyphens here.
The En Dash
It’s entirely possible you’ve never heard of this particular dash. Often, it’s substituted with a hyphen, but in traditional typography, the en dash is slightly wider than the hyphen. Its purpose is to connect ranges.
- The theater is going to begin its 2017–2018 season with a Neil Simon play.
- The rainy months in this climate are July–September.
It is also used between times (10 a.m.–2 p.m.), directions (east–west) and sports scores (15–27).
There is an exception if you are using “from” with “to” and “between” with “and.” Do not use an en dash in that case.
- They organized all the files, from A to Z.
- My high school years lasted between 2001 and 2005.
Read more about the en dash here.
The Em Dash
The biggest of the three, the em dash can be overused in part because — much like a small child — it often interrupts the flow of a sentence (See? That aside was accurate yet unnecessary). The em dash can take the place of a pair of commas or parentheses to set off nonessential information, or like a colon, it can appear between two related phrases.
- We visited the big tourist spots in New York City — such as Times Square and the Empire State Building — and had a great time.
- After putting peanut butter on the bread, he realized a hard truth — he was out of jelly.
In AP style, always put a space before and after an em dash. Because an em dash is so dramatic, it should be limited to no more than two instances per sentence. The em dash shouldn’t be used in very many sentences in an article, or it loses its intensity.
Find out more about the em dash here.