Hyphens, en dashes, em dashes — oh my! Let’s get the three versions of the dash straight once and for all.
No matter what kind of writing you do (copywriting, creative writing, marketing, journalism—the list goes on and on), you’re bound to run into this problem: Do I use a hyphen, en dash or em dash?
Well, that all depends on the situation. Today I uncover how to tell the difference between the hyphen, en dash and em dash as well as the basic rules for using each kind of dash.
DISCLAIMER: These rules aren’t conclusive as to how to use the hyphen, en dash and em dash. Some dash instances must be judged based on its unique usage.
How to Use the Hyphen
The hyphen is the smallest of the three lines. Press the dash key once and it looks like this: –
When it comes to figuring out how to use the hyphen, it’s not so straightforward.
The hyphen connects two words that are closely connected or related. When two words function together as a single concept, you use a hyphen. Like this: Self-esteem, stress-free, fire-proof.
There are many reasons to use a hyphen to connect multiple words. I’ll cover the most common instances:
Hyphens with Adjectives
A hyphen can be used to connect two adjectives together before a noun.
Here’s an example: They’re in a long-distance relationship.
But if you use the adjectives after the noun, the hyphen is dropped. Then it reads: Their relationship is long distance.
But hyphens aren’t always used when two adjectives follow a noun. Concepts like “ice cream” and “chocolate chip” drop the hyphen even though the two words are closely connected. So an ice cream cone and a chocolate chip cookie won’t include a hyphen.
The best way to know if two adjectives should be bonded with or without a hyphen? Open a dictionary. If it’s listed without a hyphen, then that’s its permanent state.
Hyphens with Adverbs
Let’s review what an adverb does: It’s a word that modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb.
Like hyphens with two adjectives, a hyphen connects an adverb is paired with an adjective but only when written before the noun.
Example: She’ll never share her best-kept secret.
But if the adverb ends in -ly, all bets are off. No hyphen is used to say quickly moving traffic or a perfectly sunny day.
That also goes for adverbs compounds with less, least, more and most. So it’s less frugal, least resistant, more willing and most colorful.
Hyphens with Multiword Compounds
Sometimes, it takes more than two words to convey a single concept. Such as: Merry-go-round, editor-in-chief, five-year-old.
It also follows the same rules that we learned when we use hyphens with adverbs. If the multiword compound comes before the noun, then use a hyphen between the words.
Use hyphen: Today I have back-to-back meetings.
Drop hyphen: Today my meetings are back to back.
Hyphens with Prefixes & Suffixes
More often than not, you don’t need to use a hyphen with prefies and suffixes. But sometimes you do.
You use a hyphen with prefixes to compound the words, such as re-, mid- and ex-. So it’s re-imagine, mid-1970s and ex-husband.
And you always use a hyphen when the prefix comes before a proper noun (such as un-American) or if the last letter of the prefix matches the first letter of the next word (such as semi-industrious).
Not too many suffixes require hyphenating the word. Suffixes like -type, -elect, -designate, -like and -fold are better with a hyphen.
Whew! Thank goodness the rules on how to use en dashes and em dashes are less confusing.
How to Use the En Dash
The en dash is the middle size of the three lines. Press the dash key and the alt/option key at the same time to get this: –
You use the en dash when you want to express a range of values or distance. So it’s 1983–1999 and $150–$300.
Here’s where learning how to use the en dash can get tricky. It’s the January–May issue of a newsletter because it also includes the months of February, March and April. We don’t use a hyphen in this case because January-May infers that the newsletter issue is only for the two months of January and May.
How to Use the Em Dash
The em dash is the longest of the three lines. Press the dash key while you hold down both the alt/option key and the shift key to get this: —
The best way to remember how to use an em dash is thinking of it as a substitute for parentheses. The em dash lets you include an additional thought to the sentence without breaking up the flow of that sentence.
So a sentence like this—be it rather lengthy because I keep typing more words—doesn’t lose its cadence or train of thought by using the em dash.
The em dash is also used as a formatting substitute. When word processing programs do not include bullets, the em dash is often used in its place to create a list of three or more. Like this:
Today, we learned how to use:
— the hyphen
— the en dash
— the em dash
REMEMBER: This is not a conclusive use on how to use the hyphen, en dash and em dash. Understanding these rules helps you recognize trickier situations when you need to evaluate on the spot which kind of dash to use—or not use.