Writer's Horizontal Lines: Hyphen, En Dash and Em Dash

 Art by the talented  Terry Followell . Find him at  17creates.com.

Art by the talented Terry Followell. Find him at 17creates.com.

There are these magical lines writers have at their fingertips. No, not the lowercase L or the uppercase I but rather the horizontal lines of the hyphens and dashes. And — get out your note-taking device now, because you're going to learn something few to no grade-school teachers have tried to teach you: There are three different dashes, with three different use cases. 

Perhaps you're familiar with one or two or (yay!) all three. But if you're biting your lower lip as you think back to that interjecting line you chose for your last piece of content, keep on reading and remember: Mistakes happen and we're all just learning and growing everyday. (I.e., don't fear the dash!) 

When should you even use dashes? 

You have your commas and periods and parentheses and quotation marks — who the heck needs dashes? Just kidding. You do. Dashes are useful lines that pack a punch of rhythm and flow. Dashes can be telling. They can be clearer than, say, commas . They can be edgy and dramatic and so much fun to use that once you start, you'll find yourself hard-pressed to pick some other punctuation joker in its stead. 

There is a time and place to use a dash, though. If you want to be appropriate, or even if you don't, you should follow some guidelines on when to pull one of the horizontal lines out of your magician's hat — and which to nab. 

  • Hyphens (aka your basic dash) join words to help writers avoid ambiguity or to create one idea from two or more words (i.e., compound modifiers). While you usually do not have to use hyphens, they can be vital for reader comprehension. If you are writing about small business owners, your readers could interpret those three words in a number of ways. "Small business owners" could mean people who own small businesses or it could mean business owners who are small (you go, lemonade stand moguls). If you intend for the former, a hyphen could clear it up real quick: "Small-business owners." See how easy that is?

    One small rule before we move on: Hyphens should never attach themselves to the word "very" or "-ly" words. Adjectives and adverbs are already modifying nouns and verbs — you don't need a hyphen to avoid confusion.

    There is more to the hyphen of course, because nothing in our written language can be simple. From the compound proper nouns and adjectives (Indian-American) to the suspensive hyphenation (10- to 30-year subscription), this little mark can clock a lot of use on the white page. But don't overuse it. You'll slow your readers down and muck up otherwise fine copy or prose.

  • En dashes connect items related to one another by distance and range. Time duration, monetary units, what have you, an en dash can be found nestled between the units. You want examples? Fine. Here are examples: June – December, pages 155 – 400, 1 – 3 miles. You'll note there is a space at each a side of the en dash and that is entirely a stylistic option; you may use spaces at either side or no spaces whatsoever — your choice as long as you maintain consistency (and unless you write for a brand with an editorial style guide that calls for one over the other).

    Extra credit option: You can (and since you're reading this and obtained the knowledge, should) use en dashes in place of hyphens to connect a prefix to an open compound. Let's slow that down and repeat: An open compound, which is a noun that includes more than one word, can be connected to a prefix with an en dash. E.g., post–World War I, pre–banana split. Spaces are never used in this instance around the en dash.

  • Em dashes are the mages, the magicians, the dramatic witches of your dash repertoire. You can use them in place of commas and parentheses to add an additional thought — which have been scattered throughout this blog post. There are no hard and fast rules but rather taste and preference at work here. Em dashes pack a different punch than your everyday comma. They are your dramatic pause, a longer pause. They also can help break up lengthy sentences that would otherwise be difficult for your readers to trek through.

How do you make the different dashes? 

A dash by any other length is a different dash. Hyphens are smaller than en dashes, which are half the length of em dashes. And em dashes are the length of, most mot juste, an M. But how can you finagle these creatures in-between the words on your computer screen? 

Hyphens can be found on your keyboard to the left of the plus/equal key and to the right of the zero key. You could call it the minus sign, but if you're a writer, you'll think of this key as a hyphen. Click it, and you've made a hyphen! Wow, that was easy-as-pie. 

En dashes come with a bit more work. Nicely enough, processors like Microsoft Word have programmed specific scenarios in place to create an en dash without you having to dig into the symbol menu (which is another place you can find it). With autoformat, you can type a word, hit space, type a single hyphen, hit another space, type another word, hit space, and your en dash will magically appear. Word, space, hyphen, space, word, space — en dash! 

Em dashes can also be discovered in the mystical and remote symbol menu. But it's easier yet to learn the autoformat function, which differs slightly from the en dash: Type a word or numeral (do not press the space bar yet), type two hyphens (keep those thumbs off the space bar yet), type another word or numeral, and now press that black bar at your thumbs and insert a space. 

Are dashes still vexing you? That's why unicorns exist. Book a project now for feedback on the horizontal lines elbowing their way between your copy or for a unicorn to write them in for you. 

Have a grammar topic you'd like covered? See an error these unicorn eyes missed (hey, even unicorns can be human sometimes)? Email Kelsey Grammar

An infamous use of the word

On my last departure from my parents' country home near Quasqueton, Iowa, I read a sign that had me doing 40 in a 25. 

If I blinked, I would have missed it, along with the small town. But my eyes remained wide open, and they read something more or less: "THANK YOU TO OUR INFAMOUS WAR VETERANS." Cue a big ole American flag and a cardboard cutout of a soldier. 

My poor husband and child had to listen to me for the next 20 minutes --- at which point the radio magically roared to life to shut me up --- about how ridiculous and detrimental the sign-master's error was to his or her message. I spent about five minutes more berating public schools and emoji FML text-speak for causing this error to go unnoticed by most ladies and gents. Because let's face it, people probably read that sign every day and didn't see a word amiss. 

Oh, the shame.

(Full disclosure: Upon seeing this word misused so often, I found myself, at that moment, full of doubt. Am I the one who is wrong? Did I not get the memo on the word's alternative usage? Then thanks to my phone, I validated --- lo and behold --- I was right. Mahahahaha! *HEAD GROWS LARGER, NOT ENOUGH TO NOTICE ... YET*)

Now, I'm not a pedantic person nor a prescriptivist editor, but --- I do believe in proper word usage. Words have meaning for a reason. And while some words' meanings change with popular usage, other words' meanings, such as infamous, are best left alone. 

Let's set the definition straight, then, shall we? 

[in-fuh-muh s] 

Having a bad reputation; causing or deserving of a bad reputation. 
Synonyms:  disreputable, ill-famed, notorious; disgraceful, scandalous, nefarious, odious, wicked, shocking, vile, heinous, villainous.

Well looky there: Infamous does not mean "not famous" or "incredibly famous" or "with fame." Infamous means famous for ill-doing.

Hitler has warranted infamy for decades. Mondays are infamous to most working adults and school-kids (and Garfield cats).

The etymology of infamous dates back to Middle English and combines two Latin roots. Medieval Latin "in-" means "not, opposite of," while Latin "famosus" translates to "celebrated." Therefore, together, infamous becomes "not celebrated." The word appears in usage sometime in the mid 1300s.  

According to Merriam-Webster, many people in the coming centuries since the 1300s misuse this word or lack confidence with using this word >> 

Perhaps you are one of those people who has looked up the word infamous because you can’t seem to quite remember whether it’s supposed to mean “very famous,” “not famous,” “famous (but in a bad way),” or some other thing. If this is the case, you are in excellent company: our records indicate that approximately 88,000 people searched for the word infamous on this site in a recent month.

If you are one of those 88,000 who looks for a synonym rather than using the word infamous, don't fear this word any longer --- remember to simply fear the person, place, or event to who this word refers.

And for all you InFamous video game fans, the creators at Sucker Punch did in fact use the word correctly. In the fictional Empire City, a mysterious explosion rocks the Historic District, and main character Cole MacGrath receives blame for the explosion and the viral epidemic that follows. I.e., he is famous around town for causing harm to the city.  

How do you peruse?

When I was a copy editor at an advertising agency, reviewing professional writers' work, I experienced a-many of moments of doubt. 

I must be wrong because this writer who is decades older than me surely didn't mess up, right? I can't be the only one to know about this rule, yet here is the twelfth error I see today. Is this a real grammar rule or is it my preference? 

I Googled my little heart out in constant search of validation for my edits (which in turn made me a better editor and a better writer).

This process of jumping over a rainbow of language research led me to learn I was wrong (and right) about a word's definition I had thought I understood for years. 

I had out my purple pen (me and my head editor were anit-red pen gals), and I was reading through some press release, some article, some advertisement. 

"Peruse the operation manual..." 

That cannot be right, I thought, coming upon this usage.


I grew up thinking peruse meant "to read in a casual or leisurely way." Operational manuals will most likely be perused, but they shouldn't be. 

I perused my text books. I perused that New Yorker article. I perused the baby books that told me how to care for my foal. 

Well stamp my hoof if it wasn't opposite day up in the dictionary. 

I dug into my Merriam-Webster and read: 

\perooz\ verb
1. To examine or consider with attention and in detail. To study. 

I could handle being wrong. I could deal with feeling a small bit of embarrassment, wondering how often I had used the word peruse incorrectly and who had thought of me as a word-lover-wannabe. I have learned my greatest lessons from being wrong. I would not forget this new definition, no Merlin. 

I continued reading the alternative definitions. Cue a mouth drop when I came upon entry No. 2: "To look over or through in a casual or cursory manner." 

There had to be an error. 

I chucked my physical dictionary to the ground and took to the magical internet. The internet corroborated what the book said (my how backwards that seems). 

Peruse had two different and opposite meanings. 


I thought surely peruse must be a word in a category of its own. My friends, there are others. There are simple words we use every day to express opposite meanings that we don't even  think about (I'm speaking for myself; perhaps you are some deep word investigator who is chuckling at my language innocence). 

Editrix Grammar Girl spoke (and wrote) about Janus words. Check out her post if you want to see how some words can be both black and white. 

And with that, I wish you a very happy Wednesday. May you have enjoyed perusing this blog post, whatever that means to you.