How to Use Dashes: Your Guide to the Em Dash, En Dash, and Hyphen Image

Dashes are great tools that can bring added style and emphasis to your writing, but only if you know how to use them correctly.

Many writers confuse the em dash with the en dash, or even the hyphen (which is technically not a dash at all). These little mistakes can make even the best writing look sloppy or unprofessional.

Avoid these common mistakes and make your writing more effective by learning the proper use of dashes and hyphens.

The Em Dash

The em dash is a versatile punctuation that can substitute for commas, parentheses, or colons—not to mention they look pretty cool, too.

Named for its size (it’s about the width of the capital letter M), it can serve a number of functions:

To Indicate Parenthetical Information

Em dashes are often used to set off parenthetical information in sentences, since they put more emphasis on the information in between.

To Set Apart Appositives That Contain Commas

Appositives are small pieces of extra information that are added into a sentence for clarification or elaboration.

Commas are usually used to indicate appositives, but if an appositive itself contains commas, the sentence can get confusing. Using two em dashes can add clarification.

To Highlight a List

When a sentence begins with a list, an em dash is better suited for separating the list than a colon. This helps to focus the three items into one idea, and it’s also easier for readers to comprehend.

To Mark a Turn in Thought

Particularly useful when writing dialogue, em dashes can be used to indicate interjections or changes in thought mid-sentence.

Copy and Paste An Em Dash

The En Dash

Also named for its size (it’s roughly the width of the capital letter N), the en dash is mostly reserved for expressing number ranges or connected words.

To Indicate Spans of Time or Number Ranges

When indicating spans of time or a range of numbers, use an en dash to separate numbers. In this context, the dash is usually read aloud as “to.”

To Indicate Relationships or Direction

The en dash can also be used to indicate a connection or relationship between two words, as well as a direction.

To Express Compound Adjectives

The en dash should be used when connecting terms that contain hyphens themselves, or when using a two-word phrase as a modifier.

Copy and Paste an En Dash

Hyphens

Not technically a dash, hyphens (-) are usually used to join words or parts of words. They cannot be substituted with other types of dashes, so learning when to use them is important.

Two-Word Adjectives

Two-word adjectives (like “two-word” in this sentence) require hyphens in order to show readers that the two words work together to create meaning.

With Nouns and Adjectives Plus Present Participles

Hyphens are required when you combine a noun or adjective with a present participle (words eding in -ing).

With Nouns and Past Participles

A hyphen is required when a compound modifier is used in combination with a past participle. However, this only applies when the compound comes before the noun it describes.

Hyphenated Compound Words

Hyphenated compound words are words that contain hyphens between them (such as mother-in-law), but many have become closed compounds over time (like teenager), so refer to a dictionary if you have doubts about a certain word.

Hyphens With Numbers

When spelled out, all numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine should be hyphenated.

Copy and Paste a Hyphen

Know Your Dashes

Knowing the difference between the different types of dashes and hyphens will make you a more precise and effective writer.

Take some time to study the em dash, en dash, and hyphen to avoid common grammatical mistakes and ensure that your writing makes a great impression.

Do you have any tips for remembering punctuation rules? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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Kaelyn Barron

As a blog writer for TCK Publishing, Kaelyn loves crafting fun and helpful content for writers, readers, and creative minds alike. She has a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Italian Studies, but her true passion has always been writing. Working from home allows her to do even more of the things she loves, like traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.