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