One of the most confusing types of punctuation to use and become comfortable with are dashes and hyphens. It is my hope to provide you with a helpful guide—so that you too may become a dash master.
Rule 1: Hyphens and Dashes are not interchangeable in formal writing (do what you’d like in your personal life).
Hyphens are a single line and are found on the typical qwerty keyboard next to the zero key. They look like this: –
There are two types of dashes: the EN dash and the EM dash. Just as the letter M is twice the size and number of peaks as the letter N, the EM dash is twice the size of the EN dash. You can write an EN dash on the typical word processor by typing a space then two hyphens in a row and hitting enter or writing another word and adding a space. It looks like this: – To type an EM dash don’t put a space between your words and type two hyphens, put the space after the next word. It looks like this: —
EN Dash: [word] + [space] + [2x Hyphen] + [enter] or [word] + [space] + [2x Hyphen] + [space] + [word] + [space]
EM Dash: [word] + [2x Hyphen] + [word] + [space]
Rule 2: EM dashes can replace commas, colons, semicolons, or parentheses. Doing so, often emphasizes what comes after or between the dashes.
Ex: His mind focused in on one thing—food, She was the mom friend—a name she wore with pride—so, of course, she had Band-Aids, etc.
EM dashes shouldn’t have space between it and the words around it typically—but occasionally a style guide will call for it. Also, just because you can use an EM dash pretty much anywhere, doesn’t mean that you should. It is mostly used for emphasis and using it too much can make it loose this impact.
Rule 3: EM dashes can be used in dialogue to indicate an interruption.
This interruption can be a character interruption, such as another character interjecting or a loud sound causing the speaker to break off. Or, it can be a narrative interruption taking place in the text.
Ex: “Why couldn’t he” — Andrew kicked a nearby chair— “just tell me?”, “I was going to —” “Well, you didn’t.” Mark interrupted, etc.
Rule 4: Two consecutive EM Dashes in the middle of a word indicate that a portion of the word is missing.
You can use this to block out a name or swear word, or to indicate that part of a word is unknown or unclear.
Ex: Mr. J—s, It sounded like: “my m—k and the ch—s”, F—k you, etc.
Rule 5: EN dashes are used to span and connect.
One of their most common uses is to connect two numbers. These numbers can be years, page numbers, scores or anything. Though it should be noted that the EN dash should not replace the word “to” or “and” when using words like “from” or “between” before the two numbers.
Ex: Your homework is to read pages 14 – 25, I attended the 2014 – 2015 seminar, etc.
You can also use it to represent a connection between two ideas. Some examples of this are:
Ex: The road runs north – south, I’m live streaming the liberal – conservative debate, etc.
Rule 6: Hyphens are used in compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Ex: Sugar-free, user-generated, fair-haired, well-known, etc.
You can choose to use an EN dash in place of a hyphen in compound adjectives, but this is your prerogative.
Those are the three main types of dashes and hyphens you’ll use in your writing—don’t even get me started on the minus sign.
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