Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes—Oh, my!

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Everyone needs a break now and then, and sentences are no different. Most writers already have a handle on how to use commas and periods to break up text and give the reader a chance to breathe.

However, one of the most overlooked and least understood punctuation marks is the dash. Dashes are multipurpose tools that writers use to indicate pauses, emphasis, and additional information. Many people mistakenly use hyphens in place of dashes—but no more.

When to Use a Hyphen

Hyphens (-) are the little guys that do the big job of connecting words. Using a hyphen combines words to paint a cohesive, picture-perfect image. Be a well-respected writer—use hyphens responsibly.

When to Use an En Dash

The en dash (–) received its moniker because it’s roughly the width of a lowercase “n.” En dashes are used to reference ranges, such as dates, times, and distances. Never put spaces on either side of the en dash when it’s used to reference ranges.

For example, “The years 1991–2013 were confusing times because I had no idea how to use the en dash properly.”

En dashes – at least in AP style – can be used to separate thoughts in a sentence or create emphasis; when using en dashes in this way, always put a space on either side of the dash. Use this dash properly, and select ALT + 0150 as a shortcut to create a range or emphasis.

When to Use an Em Dash

The em dash (—) was so named because of its lowercase “m” length. This dash is never sandwiched by spaces on other sides—or you’re using it incorrectly.

This dash can replace the more cumbersome punctuation marks—semicolons, we’re looking at you—like parentheses, commas, colons, and semicolons. The em dash can be inserted in the middle of a sentence—mimicking the way we interject when we’re excited—to create emphasis.

Em dashes can also be used to close off a sentence—portraying an emphasized, final thought. If your keyboard has a number pad, type ALT + 0151 to create this long—but important—dash.

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