Until the age of 20, when I got my first proofreading job, I thought hyphens and dashes were the same thing. Writers could choose to make them short, medium or long based on personal preference, I assumed.
What a difference eight years makes. Now, I spend a large part of every workday painstakingly increasing and decreasing the length of tiny lines. It’s more fun than it sounds.
Here’s what we’re working with:
En dash –
Em dash —
En and em dashes (also called en and em rules) are thus named because they are the same width as a lower-case en and an upper-case em, respectively. That’s also a useful way to remember which is which – just remember “M” is wider than “n”.
Below is an overview of when you should use each piece of punctuation. I’ve taken my examples from news stories about the current US election, in an attempt to be topical. (OK, OK, I’m also hoping people will accidentally stumble onto this page while trying to find the latest election goss.)
The hyphen is one of the trickiest pieces of punctuation in the English language, and deserves much more attention than I can give it in this humble post.
With that in mind, here are some situations in which you may need to use a hyphen:
Compound modifiers: two or more words that, together, act as an adjective.
“I knew Donald Trump’s message would resonate with blue-collar Democrats,” he said.
Compound nouns: two or more words that, together, make a noun.
The event marked the first formal face-off between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Compound verbs: two or more words that, together, make a verb.
The ballots are color-coded by party to distinguish them from one another.
Prefixes and suffixes: elements placed at the beginning or end of words that change their meaning.
The presidential primaries and caucuses are being held between February 1 and mid-June, 2016.
In a Trump-less election, the Rubio campaign would likely fare much better.
Separating elements: when you want to emphasise a word’s distinct parts.
First, we learned that Carly Fiorina can’t pronounce the word “Massachusetts”. “Here’s the truth about Massa-too-setts,” she said …
Word division: when a word is broken up over two printed lines.
His speech was mostly forgettable, arguing that Republican success was inev-
itable if they simply bullied the Democrats hard enough.
There is some overlap between en and em dashes, which we’ll discuss below. First, I’ll talk about the job that only an en dash can do: represent a relationship between two elements. In these cases, the dash could often be replaced with the word “to”.
Here are the situations in which you need to use an en dash:
Between ranges of numbers:
Clinton also won with the 35–49 age group.
1984–2013: Director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
Just remember that you can’t use the en dash if you’ve introduced the range with “between” or “from”:
Clinton also won with voters aged between 35 and 49.
To express scores:
Hillary Clinton goes into Super Tuesday with a 26-pledged-delegate lead (91–65) over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Between words, to show a relationship or movement between two things. Again, the word “to” could (albeit clumsily) stand in for the en dash:
According to a profile of the Cruz father–son relationship …
The em dash has two unique jobs, jobs that only it can do:
Identifying the source of a quotation:
Today, I leave the race without an ounce of regret. —Chris Christie
Showing an interruption in dialogue:
SANDERS: If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy—
CLINTON: You know—
SANDERS: Excuse me, I’m talking.
Apart from that, the em dash shares its role with the en dash, as discussed below.
When en and em collide
There are several situations in which you can use either an en or an em dash. In general, en dashes are more common in British English and em dashes in American English. En dashes, in this context, should always have spaces on either side. Em dashes can be written with or without spaces. If you’re writing for a certain publication, check its style guide, which should state its preference. Otherwise, just make sure you’re consistent with your choice of dash.
Here are the ways in which en and em dashes can be used:
To show an aside (in lieu of commas or parentheses). When you’re using dashes in this way, make sure there are two of them, and check that the sentence would still make sense if you deleted the dashes and the words between them:
Both tap into a pervasive – and somewhat perverse – mood that the country is going to hell in a handcart.
Both tap into a pervasive — and somewhat perverse — mood that the country is going to hell in a handcart.
Both tap into a pervasive—and somewhat perverse—mood that the country is going to hell in a handcart.
To introduce a follow-up thought (in lieu of a colon). The words after the dash should elaborate on or explain what came before:
And he was not, he said, afraid of naming the greatest threat to its safety – ‘radical Islamic terrorists’.
And he was not, he said, afraid of naming the greatest threat to its safety — ‘radical Islamic terrorists’.
And he was not, he said, afraid of naming the greatest threat to its safety—‘radical Islamic terrorists’.
To create a pause in the sentence. In this case, the sentence would still make sense without the dash, but the dash adds emphasis:
Abortion opponents have cited polls showing that a majority considers life to begin at conception – and opposes abortion access in many cases.
Abortion opponents have cited polls showing that a majority considers life to begin at conception — and opposes abortion access in many cases.
Abortion opponents have cited polls showing that a majority considers life to begin at conception—and opposes abortion access in many cases.
How to make them
Hyphens get their own dedicated key on computer and smartphone keyboards, but en and em dashes aren’t so lucky. In Word, you can choose them from the Symbols menu, but that’s annoyingly time-consuming.
Here’s how you can create them with keyboard shortcuts. Note that [hyphen] is along the top row of your keyboard and [minus] is to the right, on the numbers keyboard. In the Windows shortcuts, you have to enter 0150 and 0151 from the numbers keyboard.
En dash: Option + [hyphen]
Em dash: Option + Shift + [hyphen]
En dash: Alt + 0150
Em dash: Alt + 0151
En dash: Ctrl + [minus]
Em dash: Ctrl + Alt + [minus]
Hold down [hyphen] and slide across to en or em dash
In a nutshell
To join two or more words together, use a hyphen (-).
To show a range or relationship between two things, use an en dash (–).
To attribute a quotation or show an interruption in dialogue, use an em dash (—).
To show an aside or a follow-up thought, or to create a break in the sentence, use either an en dash (with spaces) or an em dash (with or without spaces), depending on your chosen style.