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  • Foto van schrijverIris Marsh

Em Dash, En Dash, and Hyphen: When Do You Use Them?

Bijgewerkt op: 11 apr.

You've probably already used all three of these little stripes in your writing. If not, you've certainly seen them in books, blogs, or other pieces of text. It can be confusing sometimes when you use which one and how you use them correctly.


But not to worry: below you can find an explanation for all three of the dashes with examples.


em dash en dash and hyphen when do you use them?

Em dash

You can use an em dash for a variety of situations:

  • Interruptions;

  • stammering between words;

  • when adding information within a sentence;

  • around information that includes interruptions or commentary.

Essentially, you can use an em dash to replace commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons. This is usually not something you should do all the time, however (it can make a sentence harder to read). It also depends on personal preference whether you use them or not.


Some examples of sentences with an em dash:


Her two sisters—July and Ramona—were fighting over the doll again.


Here, you use them instead of commas: Her two sisters, July and Ramona, were fighting over the doll again. You use the em dashes to add information within a sentence.


As you can see, the em dash is more noticeable, and you can use it to direct the reader’s attention to the information.


He quickly put the hot chili pepper in his mouth—such an idiot!—and chewed while tears streaked his face.


Here, the dashes are used to replace parentheses: He quickly put the hot chili pepper in his mouth (such an idiot!) and chewed while tears streaked his face. It's used around information that adds a commentary to the sentence that's abrupt or different from the main sentence.


“He—he is gone.”


There's a stammer between words in the above sentence. This is a good technique to use to show the stammering rather than saying: “He is gone,” he said, stammering over the first word.


“Now dear”—she waved him over— “let’s talk.”

“But I was just—”

“I don't want to hear it!”


Here, the em dash is used for interruptions in two different ways. In the first example, there's an interruption within a sentence to show a character pausing and taking some form of action.


The second example shows someone being interrupted. As with stammering, this is a more efficient way of showing than saying something like: “But I was just,” she started explaining but was quickly interrupted by her mother. “I don't want to hear it!”

 
 

Different ways to use em dashes

When you decide to use em dashes, it’s important to decide how you’ll use them in terms of spacing. You can either use no spacing as in the previous examples or use spacing:


Her two sisters — July and Ramona — were fighting over the doll again.


In addition, when using an em dash in dialogue, you can put them outside or inside the quotation marks. Above I put them outside the quotation marks, but you can also do it like this:


“Now dear—” she waved him over “—let’s talk.”


En dash

An en dash is used to represent a span or range, such as numbers, dates, or time. It looks a lot like a hyphen, so it's difficult to tell them apart sometimes. They're a little bit larger than hyphens.

Unlike the em dash, an en dash should never have a space around it.


Some examples:

The years 2020–2021 were extremely difficult due to COVID.

The shop is open every Tuesday, 10:00 am–17:00 pm.


Here, the en dash covers a timespan.


Apart from numbers, an en dash can also be used between words to either represent a conflict, connection, or direction.


The liberal–conservative debate

The Amsterdam–New York flight

A south–east direction


It’s possible to use an en dash for compound adjectives. However, it's more standard to use hyphens in this instance. So, if you do use an en dash here, it's an aesthetic choice.


 
 

Hyphen

A hyphen never has spaces around it. Its main purpose is to glue words together; it shows a connection. A hyphen can be used for several things, such as:

  • Compound adjectives;

  • Prefixes;

  • Suffixes;

  • Stuttering between letters.

A compound adjective is when two or more words that come before a noun are hyphenated to act as a single idea.

For instance: A black-and-white dress.

An all-you-can-eat restaurant.


Note that most of the time, these adjectives aren't hyphenated when they follow the noun:


A dress that is black and white.


But some compound adjectives are so established, that they're always hyphenated:


A restaurant that offers all-you-can-eat.


If you’re unsure about a potential compound adjective, you can check your dictionary whether it's hyphenated or not.


Whenever you make up a new sort of compound verb or compound noun (which can happen when you want to write something original), it's common to hyphenate it to avoid confusion.

 
 

Something to keep an eye out for, however, is that the adverb very isn't hyphenated. The same goes for adverbs ending in ly.


The very fascinating topic.

The finely woven fabric.


This is only the case with adverbs. If the word ending in ly isn't an adverb, you should hyphenate:


The family-owned bookstore.

The friendly-looking guy.


Prefixes and suffixes also have a hyphen. A prefix is letters placed before the root word (a, un, de, ab, sub, post, anti, trans, mid, etc.). However, this isn't the case for every type of prefix, such as apolitical, unfriendly, dishonor, etc.


Generally, hyphenate a prefix when it comes before a proper noun or adjective (mid-July) and when the word great is used within family relations (great-grandfather). When clarity is needed, you can also add a hyphen: ultra-ambitious. And hyphenate all words that start with self-, ex-, and all- (all-knowing, self-confidence, ex-lover).


Again, when in doubt, look it up.


A suffix (er, ism, able, ous, etc.) is generally only hyphenated for the words: -style, -elect, -free, -based (medieval-style, dairy-free, iron-based).


You can also use hyphenates when there can be confusion, like when the last letter in the root word is the same as the first letter in the suffix or when it's difficult to read the word otherwise.


Finally, you can use a hyphen for stuttering between letters (so that’s different from stammering between words). For instance:


“H-hi. H-h-ow are y-you?”


As with stammering, this shows the reader someone stutters, rather than saying: “Hi. How are you?” she stuttered.

 
 


Use your stripes the right way

I hope this article clarified how to properly use an em dash, en dash, and hyphen in your writing. If you'd like more help with editing your writing, you can sign up for my free self-editing course.


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