When to use a hyphen, an en dash or an em dash

These oft-confused line segments can be helpful for writers and editors, but they should be employed with care. Here’s how to distinguish the marks and their respective purposes.

As experienced writers and editors, many PR Daily readers harbor a dislike for the hyphen.

It’s a punctuation mark that’s supposed to help writers avoid ambiguity, but it can confuse readers. Add dashes of varying lengths, and it’s chaos.

Chaos aside, hyphens and dashes have different uses and cannot be used interchangeably. Here’s how to tell the difference and use each correctly.

Hyphens

Hyphens connect words, prefixes and suffixes, and they are generally used to avoid ambiguity.

We found ourselves in a dirty movie theater.
We found ourselves in a dirty-movie theater.

The battalion was made up of six foot soldiers.
The battalion was made up of six-foot soldiers.

Hyphens are also used to separate numbers that are not inclusive, such as telephone numbers or Social Security numbers. Hyphens are likewise used in URLs and email addresses, and to spell out a word letter by each letter.

800-888-8888
hyphen-dash.com
pandemonium is spelled p-a-n-d-e-m-o-n-i-u-m

Em dashes

Em dashes can be used when you want to introduce additional information in a sentence but don’t want to set it off with commas or parentheses:

My teenage son— who has never been much of a writer claims he will set fire to his laptop if he has to write one more paper.

Em dashes can also be used to separate a pronoun from what it refers to:

Everett is the perfect CEO— honest, personable, and sharp.

Em dashes can also be used to convey a more emphatic aside:

It was foolish—and you said it was—to think that writing the corporate style guide would be fun.

Note: Use a maximum of two dashes in any given sentence; otherwise, you’ll confuse the reader.

En dashes

En dashes are longer than a hyphen, but half the length of the em dash. En dashes connect continuing numbers, such as dates, times and pages. They can also be used to indicate an unfinished number range.

Please read chapters 2 12 tonight.
The party is from 7 9 p.m. Saturday.
The vote was 125 127 against the bill.
Hilary Mantel (1952 )

Double em dashes

The double em dash is used to indicate missing letters in a word, either because the material is missing or illegible, or to conceal a name.

The company and Ms. S—— agreed to settle the case.

Triple em dashes

The triple em dash is used to indicate missing words.

I admire ——— too much to expose him in this article.

Dashes and hyphens convey particular meanings. As the Chicago Manual of Style states, “Though many readers may not notice the difference—especially between an en dash and a hyphen—correct use of different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.”

A medical writer in Austin, Texas, Laura Hale Brockway is a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her posts on writing, editing and chaotic punctuation at impertinentremarks.com.

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