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If you find it hard to differentiate between em dash vs. em dash vs. hyphen, you’re not the only one. Many of us are confused about when to use a dash, when to use a hyphen, and how to tell apart the two types of dashes.
As your editors and proofreaders, knowing grammar and punctuation rules inside out is kind of our job! In this article, we’ll tell you how to use an em dash vs. en dash and provide a few examples to make things simpler. Let’s start with the most basic question: How does a dash differ from a hyphen?
Beyond the fact that they are horizontal lines, dashes and the hyphen have absolutely nothing in common! They are different punctuation marks that signify separate things and are used for separate purposes.
Here’s how you can easily remember the key difference between a dash vs. a hyphen:
A hyphen (-) is shorter and is used in between compound words and numbers. It is also used to emphasize certain parts of words.
A dash (– or —) is longer and, depending on the type, is used to connect two grammatical units or to signify a range.
A hyphen is a short horizontal line (-) that can be used to connect two words, to form a compound word, or to spell out numbers. It is also used to emphasize certain parts of a word.
If a hyphenated word is used extensively over a period of time, the hyphen gets omitted gradually. For example, the previously hyphenated word “online” is now used without a hyphen due to its widespread application.
Unsure whether to use a hyphen or not? The dictionary is your best friend! But we can certainly cover some basic rules of hyphen usage. We’ll also provide various hyphen examples so it’s easy for you to differentiate between a hyphen and a dash.
Compound words are two or more words that can be used together to form a unit. A hyphen is sometimes used to form these words. For example: sister-in-law, self-esteem, merry-go-round.
Remember that hyphens are used with compound adjectives if the adjectives are used before the noun. Here are a few examples of hyphens in compound adjectives:
This one-of-a-kind chair is surprisingly comfortable!
She is a twelve-year-old math prodigy.
If compound adjectives are used after nouns, they are written without a hyphen.
This chair is one of a kind and surprisingly comfortable!
The math prodigy is just twelve years old.
Note: Do not use hyphens if compound adjectives end with -ly.
(correct) She is a highly trained martial artist.
(incorrect) She is a highly-trained martial artist.
Numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated when written down.
She got her first job at the age of twenty-two.
Today is our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary!
Hyphens are used with a certain set of prefixes and suffixes where they denote the relationship between the root word and the affix. Let’s take a quick look at some of these terms with plenty of hyphen examples!
Self-esteem, Self-respect, Self-service, self-aware, self-confident
All-expenses-paid, all-night, all-encompassing, all-important, all-female
Cross-examine, cross-check, cross-country, cross-section, cross-breed
Minimalist-style, goth-style, vintage-style, co-ordinating-style, victorian-style
President-elect, vice president-elect, mayor-elect, governor-elect, minister-elect
Sugar-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, sulfate-free, paraben-free
Hyphens can be used between letters to emphasize a part of the word or create a stuttering effect.
The spelling of pheromones is p-h-e-r-o-m-o-n-e-s.
It is so c-cold, I’m freezing.
We shouldn’t have come here, I’m s-s-cared of g-g-hosts!
Please note that this usage is not typical and is usually found only in creative writing.
Dashes are horizontal lines slightly longer than a hyphen and are mainly found in typeset documents.
Unlike the solitary hyphen, there are two types of dashes: the em dash and the en dash. An easy way to distinguish them is to connect their main functions with their length. The longer em dash (—) is used to connect two longer grammatical units such as clauses or sentences. On the other hand, the shorter en dash (–) is used to connect shorter grammatical units such as numbers or words.
Let’s consider the dashes in some more detail.
It’s easy to confuse the em dash with the en dash, but a simple tip can help you tell them apart. The clue is in their names! The dashes are named after the letters M and N. The em dash is roughly the width of the letter “M” while the en dash is the width of the letter “N”!
Since “M” is a wider letter than “N”, you can easily tell them apart. Now, let’s look at the real difference between the two: their uses. The em dash is used in place of a comma, colon, or parentheses while the en dash is used to indicate a range or replace the words “to” or “through”.
Let’s take a closer look at some em dash examples for a deeper understanding of how it is used.
The longer of the two dashes, the em dash, is definitely striking. This is because it is often stylistically used by writers to draw attention to a particular part of a sentence. Let’s take a look at the multiple interesting uses of an em dash with some examples.
Sometimes writers use the em dash in place of two commas or parentheses to draw attention to the information placed between the em dashes. In this way, it is used to connect two sentences, phrases, or clauses.
My cousin—the one who studies film and media—is visiting this July.
The Fault in Our Stars—one of the most touching books I’ve ever read—has a movie adaptation.
The em dash is used in place of a colon to convey suspense and anticipation. It is also used to embellish a certain point you’re trying to make.
All of you did a phenomenal job in today’s quiz—especially David.
The next class is one everyone looks forward to—Art!
The beach, the blue skies, and friends to enjoy it with—what more could I ask for?
Em dashes can be used to depict a sudden interruption in dialogue.
“Hey, I truly am so grateful—”
“Oh, enough with those formalities! Aren’t we friends already?”
The shorter of the two dashes, the en dash, is used to draw attention to the relationship between two words or numbers. We’ll show you how to use the en dash with some helpful en dash examples.
The en dash can be used in place of the words “and”, “to”, and “through” to signify a range or a period.
The notice in the hotel lobby stated, “Rooms 101–205 will be unavailable due to renovations.”
The Spanish flu (1918–1919) was one of the deadliest pandemics in history.
Note: In paired conjunctions like “from…to”, and “between…and” the second part of the conjunctions “to” and “and” are retained in order to complete the conjunction.
(Incorrect) She lived in Tokyo from 2011–2020.
(Correct) She lived in Tokyo from 2011 to 2020.
Note: The en dash is a special character that is not easily rendered on a keyboard, so it is mostly found in typeset material. People generally replace the en dash with a hyphen in such cases since it is easy to use.
The en dash is a versatile punctuation and can be used to describe directions, relationships, scores (or votes). Here are a few examples:
The Bombay–Goa train leaves at 5 pm today.
The Springdale Giants won 2–1 against the Sunnyside Seagulls.
The mother–daughter duo was certainly beautiful.
Although uncommon, the en dash can be used instead of a hyphen in a compound adjective. There are two such instances: when the adjective is an open compound or a hyphenated compound.
An open compound is a combination of two or more words that are divided by spaces. It’s taken as a single unit even if includes spaces between the words. For example: Hot dog, sleeping bag, black eye.
In this case, a hyphen cannot be used because more than one grammatical unit is involved. So, an en dash is used to make things easier. Here’s an example:
Her Martha Stewart–style chicken was a hit at the party.
Although less frequent, an en dash is used in a hyphenated compound adjective. Since a hyphenated compound already contains one compound word, the en dash clarifies the relationship between involved grammatical units. Take a look at the below en dash example:
The kindergarten caters to pre-school–educated students.
In British English, the em dash is generally replaced by the en dash with spaces on both sides. Let us understand this with the help of a few examples.
Tokyo is a beautiful—not to mention extremely clean—city with gorgeous skylines.
Tokyo is a beautiful – not to mention extremely clean – city with gorgeous skylines.
I did not expect such a stellar performance—especially from Candice!
I did not expect such a stellar performance – especially from Candice!
Can you clean the window—actually, just get me the sponge instead.
Can you clean the window – actually, just get me the sponge instead.
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