Hyphen Vs En Dash vs Em Dash – What’s the Difference?

The hyphen and the dash are commonly confused and misunderstood punctuation marks. And did you know that there are two kinds of dash? That’s right, there are en dashes and em dashes.

In this article, we explain ‘em all — hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes — with examples of each.

Key Takeaways

A hyphen (-) is a short punctuation mark used to connect two or more words together, creating compound words. For example, “short-term,” or “hard-and fast.”

The en dash (–) is slightly longer than a hyphen and is used to indicate a range, a tally, or a connection between two things, such as “November 9–12,” “the vote was 48–52,” or “the New York–London flight.” 

The en dash was originally named for being the width of the letter “n,” though in many fonts today, this may not be entirely accurate.

The em dash (—) is the longest of the three marks and is used to create a strong break in a sentence, often to indicate a change in tone or thought, such as “I went to the concert—although I really didn’t want to—just to make my partner happy.” 

Similar to the en dash, the em dash is so named for being the length of the letter “m.”

The Hyphen

Hyphens are used in compound adjectives to connect two or more words together to create a single adjective that modifies a noun. This helps to clarify the meaning of the sentence and avoid confusion.

For example, “a well-known actor” includes the compound adjective “well-known,” which modifies the noun “actor.”

According to the MLA Handbook:

“Use a hyphen in a compound adjective beginning with an adverb such as better, best, ill, lower, little, or well when the adjective precedes a noun.”

For example:

  • best-known book
  • ill-informed citizen
  • well-loved celebrity

The MLA Handbook recommends against using a hyphen after any adverb ending in -ly. For example, “thoughtfully composed” and “shabbily dressed” do not need hyphens.

Hyphens are also used to separate numbers, such as phone numbers and Social Security numbers. They can also separate letters. For example, “My name is Michael, spelled M-I-C-H-A-E-L.”

How to type a hyphen

The hyphen is the only one of these punctuation marks to get its own button on the standard QWERTY keyboard. You likely know where it is already—top right, between the 0 and the +.

The En Dash

En dashes (–) are used to indicate a range of numbers, dates, or times. They are longer than hyphens (-) but shorter than em dashes (—).

Here’s when to use en dashes.

To indicate a range of numbers:

  • Please read chapters 5–8 for next week’s discussion.
  • The score of the game was 42–31.

To indicate a range of dates and times:

  • The conference will take place on October 20–22.
  • The store’s hours are 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.

Be careful, though. The Chicago Manual of Style and other guides warn not to use the en dash if the word “from” precedes the first number. The word “from” should always be paired with the word “to.” 

For example:

The store is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Additionally, en dashes can also be used for other purposes, such as to connect two words that have equal weight or to show conflict or contrast between two ideas.

For example:

  • The mind–body connection
  • The Franco–Prussian War
  • A New York–L.A. flight
  • A teacher–student relationship

How to type an en-dash

This one can be the trickiest. On a Mac, press Option+hyphen. On a PC Desktop, type Ctrl+ the minus key on the alphanumeric pad (it must be the minus key on the alphanumeric pad). On a PC laptop or Chromebook, your best bet is to go to Insert>Special Character in your word processor. 

In many cases, particularly in less formal writing, writers will rely on hyphens to do the job of the en dash. 

The Em Dash

The Em dash, often just called a dash, is the most common of the dashes, according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

Em dashes indicate a break in a sentence and can take the place of commas, parentheses, and colons. Use an en dash or parentheses to indicate a break in the train of thought or, according to Chicago, to add an “amplifying or explanatory element.”

For example:

  • I wanted to go shopping—I need a new dress—but I ran out of time.
  • My mom—she couldn’t sleep last night—is so grouchy today.
  • I have to go to the bank—no wait, I went yesterday.
  • I’m going to stay healthy—knock wood.

To Space or Not to Space

Whether or not to use spaces around an em dash depends on style. For example, MLA and Chicago dictate not to use spaces (as in the examples above), whereas AP Style prefers them. Always check with your style guide, publisher, or teacher. 

The Brits Use Ens and Spaces

In British English, the en dash can be used like an em dash. In fact, the en dash is preferred to the em dash by the Oxford Style Guide. When using an en dash in this way, there are always spaces on either side. For example:

I’m going to stay healthy – knock on wood.

How to type an em-dash

To indicate an em dash, type two hyphens in a row (–). Many word processors will automatically convert these into an em dash.

En Dashes, Em Dashes, and Hyphens — Oh My!

There you have it — your guide to dashes and hyphens. Hyphens are used to connect words, as in compound adjectives, en dashes are generally used for ranges, and em dashes set off phrases that break away from the main thought of a sentence.

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