Get Dashing—The Skinny on Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
Dashes and hyphens are like the wine of the grammar world: there’s a variety to choose from and oftentimes people go for whatever is easiest because, let’s face it, knowing more on the subject is a whole lot of work.
Something I often see as an editor is the incorrect use of different types of dashes—those horizontal lines of varying length that do various things, like form compound words, connect date ranges, indicate interrupting phrases, and so on. The possibilities are multitudinous.
Maintaining a good grasp on grammar rules isn’t just about saving your editor time and effort (though that’s certainly a bonus); it’s also a way to polish your manuscript to allow your editor to place their main focus on further sculpting your brilliant prose rather than your grammatical faux pas.
That’s why we’ve broken down the how-to of hyphens—so you know what goes where, and why.
First off, these are the three types of dashes. From shortest to longest, they are:
The hyphen -
The en dash –
The em dash —
Now, here’s how you use ‘em:
The hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three, and it’s used to join compound words. For example:
A green-eyed monster
Hyphens are important because they glue words together to show how they function as a single noun (e.g., a wire-fastener), or they glue adjectives together to point towards the noun being described (e.g., a three-year-old boy). You can even use hyphens to create unique verbs for a specific (and often humorous) effect (e.g., I will wine-drink the evening away).
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The en dash (–) is slightly longer, and it gets its name from the fact that it’s as wide as an uppercase “N”. You use the en dash to indicate different ranges. For example:
En dashes are also used to a) join words of an equal weight in a compound adjective (e.g., the Russo–Japanese war), and b) to connect a prefix to a two-word compound noun (pre–World War I).
The em dash is the longest of the three—as long as a capital “M”, in fact. The most versatile of the three, you can use an em dash to create a strong break in thought, show an interjection, input a parenthetical clause, or to indicate interrupted speech. For example:
I talked to Jim—the guy who works at the café—when I ran into him at the grocery store.
“But what about—”
“It’s too late for that!” he blurted.
As a general rule, don’t overuse em dashes in formal writing; use commas or parentheses instead. Commas are good for less significant breaks in thought, parentheses for more significant ones, and em dashes fall right in the middle.
Now one step wiser in the world of grammar, we wish you all the best in your dashing and hyphenating endeavours! Mwah!
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