Dash It All!


OK, I admit it. I was working on my second master’s degree before I realized there was more than one kind of dash. I only took one grammar class as an undergraduate, and I can’t for the life of me remember if we covered it or not. We probably did, but that was fourteen years ago, and the memory gets a little fuzzy as we get older. (I’ll be 34 on Monday! *GASP*) Alas, my wonderful Shakespeare professor in grad school showed me the error of my ways, and I will never, ever, forget it.

Today, I’ll be talking about the different uses for the hyphen (-) the en dash (–) and the em (—) dash. I use both the hyphen and the en dash, but the em dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks! It’s right up there with the semicolon.

First of all, the major difference between these marks is the length of the line. The hyphen is the shortest, the en dash is the width of a typed letter n, and the em dash is the width of the typed letter m. Creative naming, huh?

I like to think of their uses in terms of relationships: the closer the relationship, the shorter the line.


The hyphen is used to connect two very closely related things, generally things that function together.

Examples: brother-in-law, tie-in, close-talker, this-n-that

Those could be separate words on their own, but they don’t quite mean the same thing. With the hyphen, they tie together to create something new. It’s a little different than a portmanteau word though. (Ah, the spork…)

They’re also used with compound modifiers, which Edmund Schubert discussed here.

En Dash

The en dash connects things that are related and are often thought of in terms of range or distance. If you can put the word “to” in it’s place, you’re probably on the right track with the en dash.

Examples: January–May, Monday–Friday, pages 3–5, Victorian–Post-Modern (see what I did there?)

To create the en dash in MS Word, do the following: word + space + hyphen + space + word

Basically, write your words (or numbers), space once, put in your hyphen, space again, and the other word (or number). MS Word should automatically convert it. Trust me, it’s a whole lot easier than going to find the special character to insert! 

**I’m using Word for Mac, but it should work on PC too!**

Em Dash

The em dash is the best of them all, at least in my opinion. It works as an interruptor, much like parentheses or commas. It’s a way to insert information without including a separate sentence. Some people prefer parentheses for that, but others prefer the em dash.

Example: Jack waited by the table—the one where he and Mary sat just before their separation—and hoped that she would come back.

The example sentence could certainly be written in other ways—Jack waited by the table where he and Mary sat just before their separation and hoped that she would come back—but using the em dash makes that important information jump out to the reader a little more.

The em dash can also be used to indicate that something is omitted. If you are omitting a whole word or phrase, you could use two or three em dashes instead of just one. That is often a matter of personal preference.

Example: “He’s behind—” Jack fell with a thump before Mary could finish her warning.

One last use for the em dash is to take the place of a colon when emphasizing the end of a sentence. A colon often feels very formal in casual writing, so the em dash can be used instead.

Example: The whole restaurant waited to hear the menu for the main course—prime rib!

A question that I often ask when I am editing is, “Which style guide do you follow?” The reason for that is very well illustrated through the em dash.

Associated Press (AP) style, which is common for newspapers and other media, often uses a space on either side of the em dash; however, Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which is used by many publishers and editors, doesn’t add that additional space.

Example AP style: Words and such — stuff in the middle — more words and such.

Example CMoS style: Words and such—stuff in the middle—more words and such.

To create the em dash in MS Word, do the following: word + hyphen + hyphen + word

So, type the word you want, don’t add a space, hit the – key twice, don’t space, and then type the next word. You should see it merge into one long line! How awesome is that?

Any questions? Post in the comments and I will check throughout the day to answer them!

If not…dash away, dash away, dash away all!


2 comments to Dash It All!

  • Razziecat

    This is something that I had wondered about, in a sort of “Am I doing this right?” way, but never bothered looking up. So thanks for the explanation! I love the em dash, too! 🙂

  • Yay! A comment! I’ve been waiting all day for one of those! My “am I doing this right?” weakness is lay/lie. I usually have it right, but I end up looking it up every time anyway. It’s my least confident grammar thing. 🙂