En Dash vs. Em Dash vs. Hyphen – How to Properly Use Them

A dash is a dash is a dash unless it is a hyphen, correct? 

You aren’t alone if you are confused and use a dash and a hyphen interchangeably (or thought they were the same thing). Unfortunately, the en dash, em dash, and hyphen are often incorrectly used due to their lack of apparent keyboard support. But, these little marks stand for very different things, and you can bring understanding and emphasis to your reader through their proper use. 

Take a look at how to use them below and take your writing to a whole new level. 

An en dash (–), the second-longest “dash,” is used to show how a range of things in writing are related to one another. An em dash (—), the longest “dash,” is used as a substitute for a comma, colon, semi-colon, or parentheses and emphasizes information. A hyphen (-) is the shortest “dash” and connects two words.

What is an En Dash?

Called such since the dash is supposed to be approximately the width of a typed letter N, the en dash (sometimes called en rule) shows the relationship between two words, dates, or numbers. 

The midsize en dash (–) is narrower than the em dash (—) but wider than a hyphen (-). 

En Dash Rules and Examples

The rules for en dash use are easy to remember since it is specific to word relationships. Take a look at how it is used to help highlight the relationship between particular words and numbers in a sentence. 

Rule #1

Use an en dash in place of the word versus.

For Example:

  • We were watching the Tiger–Ranger game on television. 
  • The Smith–Johnson debate was heating up before the second question was even asked. 

Rule #2

Use an en dash to replace to or and. Do not use if sentence structure contains a “from … to …” or “between … and …” parallel structure. 

For Example:

  • Communication is essential to building administrator–teacher trust. 
  • The Dallas–Las Vegas connection included a 3-hour layover. 

Rule #3

Use an en dash for number or date ranges

For Example:

  • We expected between 15–20 people for the spring luncheon. 
  • Shipping usually takes 5–10 business days. 
  • The 1861–1865 American Civil War was horrendous in terms of lives lost.  

Rule #4 

Use an en dash to highlight equal partnerships or pairings. 

For Example:

  • The teacher–teacher training was beneficial for building trust throughout the school year. 
  • The Lovington–Hobbs games were scored by officials from both towns. 

Rule #5

Use an en dash for scores, votes, or directions from one place to another.  

For Example:

  • The ballgame’s final score was 5–2. 
  • The campaign manager reported he had won in a landslide, 632–234.
  • The Detroit–Orlando flight was a quick one. 

Rule #6

Use an en dash for complex compound adjectives in place of a hyphen to provide clarity. 

For Example:

  • The post-Communist era in Eastern Europe saw a reemergence of theater and the arts. 
  • The nouveau–riche are often considered tacky and uncultured by those who inherited their wealth. 

What is an Em Dash?

Grammarist Article Graphic 4

Called such since the dash is supposed to be approximately the width of a typed letter M, the em dash (sometimes called em rule) is used to help separate certain words from the rest of a sentence in a dramatic fashion. It can replace commas, colons, and parentheses. 

The em dash (—) is longer than both the en dash (–) and hyphen (-).

Em Dash Rules and Examples

The em dash emphasizes and brings attention to offset words within a sentence. Specific rules concerning their use are in place to help you use it for writing clarification and for highlighting information for your reader. If you are confused as to why you should consider replacing the comma with an em dash, the em dash vs. comma argument supports that the comma doesn’t add as much of a dramatic tone. This is important to consider when you want your reader to notice specific words and phrases.  

Rule #1

Use an em dash to highlight dramatic interrupting ideas, summaries, and abrupt changes of thought.

For Example:

  • The literature class — incredibly engaging due to the professor’s teaching approach — was offered only once a year for credit. 

Rule #2

Use an em dash to set off long nonessential appositives when you want to add drama or if it is already internally punctuated. For Example:

  • The professor — an immigrant who escaped the Communist block, traveled in disguise and eventually stowed away on a ship — used his life experiences as part of his teaching style. 

Rule #3

Use an em dash to set off a nonessential modifier when you want to add drama or if it is already internally punctuated. 

For Example:

  • The classroom — dark and cramped due to being set in the back of the building — created a dramatic effect when the professor’s personal stories were shared. 

Rule #4

Use an em dash to replace parentheses if it is long, internally punctuated, or to help provide emphasis. 

For Example:

  • I always showed up early to class — I had a secret crush on the brooding, dark teacher’s aide — and sat towards the front to participate in all the discussions. 

Rule #5

Use an em dash between a list and an independent clause when the list comes first.

For Example:

  • Giving exams, grading papers, and finalizing projects — seems to be all we do at the end of the school year. 

What is a Hyphen?

A hyphen is a punctuation mark used to connect compound words, word elements, and numbers to help highlight their relationship to one another. Unlike dashes, they are more specific to making connections rather than offsetting or separating words and phrases. 

The smaller hyphen (-) is narrower than both the em dash (—) and en dash (–). 

Hyphen Rules and Examples

The hyphen is the most widely used punctuation mark compared to the en dash and em dash. It is commonly seen in formal and informal writing scenarios and helps connect words for the reader to see word and number relationships. 

Rule #1

Use a hyphen with a compound modifier if the word you are modifying follows immediately after the modifier. Compound adjectives are the most common.

For Example:

  • Chornobyl, the site of one of the world’s most dangerous radiation leaks, still records high-level radiation readings. 

Rule#2

Use a hyphen to Compound Nouns when the principal word has been made plural. 

For Example:

  • The sisters-in-law all enjoyed their weekend getaway without their husbands. 

Rule #3

Use a hyphen when dividing words that don’t fit on a line. Always divide between syllables, do not divide a one-syllable word, and do not divide between a single letter and the rest of the work.

Rule #4

Use a hyphen to form original compound verbs for context and/or humor. 

For Example:

  • To avoid criticism and distracting emotions, Sam water-proofed his life from the negativity that rained down upon him. 

Rule #5

Use a hyphen with participles if the participle follows the noun. 

For Example:

  • The sour-puss expression on her face said all we needed to know how this lecture would go. 

Rule #6

Use a hyphen to make words with double vowels more readable.

For Example:

  • After moving away to college, Jennifer became semi-independent; she still relied on rent money from her parents but took care of everything else. 

Rule #7

Use a hyphen with compound numbers.

For Example:

  • I’ll turn forty-four this coming June.  

Rule #8

Use a hyphen to tell the age and lengths of time of things and people. Do not use when plural forms are present. 

For Example:

  • The child was only a two-year-old. 

Rule #9

Use a hyphen to indicate distance and time estimates. An en dash can also be used.

For Example:

  • We are expecting between 600-800 guests to walk the gardens. 

Rule #10

Use a hyphen for modifiers that use metric and English units of measurement. Do not use the hyphen if you abbreviate the measurement, however.

For Example: 

  • The deck crew was busy cleaning the 50-meter yacht.

Rule #11

Use a hyphen when you join a prefix to a capitalized word or if the hyphen is necessary to avoid changing the meaning of the word with the prefix “-re.” Also, always use a hyphen with the prefixes “self-,” “all-,” and the reflexive prefix “ex-.”

For Example:

  • The pre-Thanksgiving appetizers were filling.
  • We had to re-cover the tables after the wind blew off the tablecloths. 
  • His ex-girlfriend was still a good friend of the family since the breakup was mutual.

Rule #12

Use a hyphen with the suffixes “-elect,” “-type,” and “-designate.” Also, use a hyphen with the suffix “-like” if the root word has three or more syllables, if the combination of letters forms two L’s or if the root word used is a proper noun

For Example:

  • The President-elect of this year’s student council will be announced at the awards ceremony later this evening. 
  • A separate graduation-like ceremony was held for those students who completed outside career training through the school year.
  • The McDonald-like shakes were a huge hit at the party.

Rule #13 

Use a hyphen to help explain or spell out a word or show stammering in a written dialog. 

For Example:

  • The correct spelling of queue is q-u-e-u-e.
  • I-I-I-I’m so tired of th-th-this s-s-school year.  

Let’s Review

En dashes help relate words and numbers to one another, while em dashes are used to offset words and phrases with emphasis. A hyphen is more commonly used than either and is found in a wide range of situations where you want to connect two words or numbers to one another.

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