Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes (Don’t Let Friends Dash Incorrectly)

Have you ever wondered why there are three types of dashes and been unsure of which one to use? The following is a basic guideline help you use the right dash, every time.

The Hackneyed Hyphen

A hyphen is the shortest dash and the most common of the three. The hyphen has a few specific uses.

  • Hyphens are used to hyphenate or break a word into two lines of copy. This technique is useful in typography to justify columns of text.
  • Hyphens are used to combine words and make a hyphenated compound word (she is detail-oriented). In this case, it signifies the relationship of detail and oriented. Detail is modifying oriented to create the distinct meaning of the compound.
  • Hyphens are used to separate non-inclusive numbers like phone numbers or social security numbers.

How To: Press the dash key (Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows) to type a hyphen. The dash key is in-between the 0 and = keys on a standard keyboard. The HTML ASCII Character Code for a hyphen is -

The Enticing En Dash

The en dash is slightly wider than a hyphen and is usually the same width as the capital letter N, hence the name.

  • En dashes are used to signify “through”. They’re primarily used to demonstrate a range between two numbers (1999–2008).

How To: Press the option and dash keys simultaneously (Apple Macintosh) or alt and 0150 on the keypad (Microsoft Windows) to type an en dash. The HTML ASCII Character Code for an en dash is –

The Masterful Em Dash

The em dash is the dash most people are talking about when they say “dash”. It’s wider than a hyphen or en dash and it’s typically the same width as a capital M, clever huh? Unenlightened typists will often type two hyphens to signify an em dash—don’t do it! Some word processing programs will automatically convert two consecutive hyphens into an em dash.

  • Em dashes are used to strongly break a sentence. They can be used in pairs, to act like parentheses—separating a clause—or one can be used to separate one section of a sentence from another.

How To: Press the option, shift and dash keys simultaneously (Apple Macintosh) or alt and 0151 on the keypad (Microsoft Windows) to type an en dash. The HTML ASCII Character Code for an em dash is —

Save the Spaces for Other Places

You should never use a space before or after a hyphen, en dash or em dash except in the rare case of a hanging hyphen (he is detail- and career-oriented). Some will argue this point and insist on a space before and after an em dash. It’s not necessary.

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