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Learn The Difference Between A Hyphen, En-Dash, And Em-Dash And Know How To Use Them

Most people don’t realise that there are actually three different types of ‘dash’ punctuation marks: hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. Each of these has a distinct grammatical use, yet authors often mistakenly use hyphens as a one-size-fits-all punctuation mark. Read on to find out what each mark is meant to be used for, how to apply this to your writing, and how to type each mark.

Before I explain each of their uses, it’s important to know what each mark looks like. They all look fairly similar, with the main visual difference being their length:

Hyphen -

En-dash –

Em-dash —


Hyphens indicate a close relationship between the words they join and signpost to readers that the words should be read together. Use hyphens to join compound modifiers like well-behaved or swift-footed, or in numbers like twenty-four or fifty-seven. Hyphens are also used to join compound words, like make-up or start-up.

Note that many compound words can be spelt without a hyphen. This often depends on the author’s or publication’s style of writing. As compound words become more commonplace, they tend to shed their hyphens with time. For example, we used to write ‘e-mail’ but it’s now far more common to write ’email’.

Hyphens are the easiest to type, with most keyboards including a dedicated hyphen/minus key.


En-dashes are roughly the width of a capital ‘N’. They are typically used by British writers and publications, whereas em-dashes are more typically seen in American texts.

En-dashes are used uniquely to indicate ranges, such as a range of numbers. Think of them as stand-ins for the words ‘from’, ‘through’, or ‘to’.

It should take 5–10 days to complete the project.

They can also be used parenthetically to indicate additional information that is not essential to a sentence. Here, they’d function much like a pair of parentheses or commas would. Use a pair of en-dashes on either side of the additional information. Make sure to include a space on either side of an en-dash when using them parenthetically.

Her favourite snacks – cheese crackers and chocolate raisins – were out of stock.

It can also be used to mark a break in a sentence, much like a semi-colon would be used. Using an en-dash is considered less formal than using a semi-colon.

The game was on sale – they’d save £15 if they bought it today!

To type an en-dash on an Apple computer, hold Option while pressing the hyphen key. Microsoft Word and other writing software will often automatically correct a hyphen to an en-dash in these situations, but it is not consistent and I would not rely on writing software to correct your writing. Depending on where you’re based, it may automatically correct to an em-dash rather than an en-dash. Getting into the habit of manually typing en-dashes where appropriate is the best way of ensuring your writing is free of errors.


Em-dashes are roughly the width of a capital ‘M’. They are typically used by American writers and publications as opposed to the more British en-dash. Em-dashes are typed without spaces on either side.

Em-dashes have many of the same uses as en-dashes: they can be used parenthetically to indicate additional information that is not essential to a sentence, or in place of a semi-colon to mark a break in a sentence. Whether you use em-dashes or en-dashes for these purposes, make sure to do this throughout your text. Don’t use parenthetical en-dashes on one page and then parenthetical em-dashes on the next. Consistency is key.

Em-dashes can also be used to indicate something missing, such as interrupted speech.

“Throw the ball to me!” shouted Chris. “I’m ready—”

The ball hit Chris in the face, cutting him off.

To type an em-dash on an Apple keyboard, hold Option+Shift while pressing the hyphen key.


Typewriters didn’t have a way to type an en-dash or an em-dash. People would type two hyphens together in place of an em-dash and use a hyphen with spaces around it in place of an en-dash.

If you have a project that is ready to be edited, why not find out how I can help you?


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