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The Craft of Writing VI: Hyphens and Dashes

November 21, 2011

The Craft of Writing VI: Hyphens and Dashes
(or Big, Bigger, Biggest)

Among the most misunderstood and misused punctuation marks are the hyphen, en-dash, and em-dash. These three marks are distinct and have separate uses, but they are often confused. So I thought I’d take a moment and discuss the specific uses for each mark.


The hyphen is the simplest of the three marks; it is also the only one that is found on the keyboard. You’ll recognize this little guy: -. The problem is, because it is the only one on the keyboard, it has become the catch-all for all three, when it actually has well-defined uses (see, there’s one there!).

Hyphenated words: Compound words like “eye-opener” use hyphens, but not all compound words (eyewitness, eye shadow) do. When in doubt, check the dictionary. Also use hyphens between adjective-noun and adjective-adjective constructions being used as an adjective preceding a noun, like “twentieth-century film” and “friendly-looking dog”.

Numbers and fractions: Hyphenate compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine. Also hyphenate all spelled out fractions, like one-third or three-fourths.

Before certain prefixes: The prefix “ex-” is always followed with a hyphen (ex-wife, ex-roommate). When “self-” is used as a prefix, it is always followed by a hyphen (self-confident and self-assured, but selfish and selfless). Also, prefixes before proper nouns are always followed by hyphens (un-American, anti-Semitic).

To avoid ambiguity or strange spellings: When a prefix ending in “a” or “i” is used before a word starting with the same letter, use a hyphen, as in “ultra-ambitious” and “anti-independent”. Prefixes ending in “e” or “o” usually don’t take hyphens (reevaluate, coordinate), but there are exceptions (de-emphasize, co-owner). Finally, there are times when adding a prefix to a word can resemble a completely separate word. In such cases, use a hyphen to separate the prefix in order to avoid ambiguity. Examples: “re-create” vs. “recreate”, “re-cover” vs. “recover”, and “re-press” vs. “repress”.

Stuttering: When demonstrating a stutter in dialogue, the hyphen is the preferred choice. “W-w-what are you d-d-doing?” (Only use this sparingly! Readers can get very exhausted if you overemphasize a speech impediment.)

En Dashes

The en dash is a little bit longer than a hyphen: it spans the width of the letter “n”, hence the name. It looks like this: –. In some programs like Word and OpenOffice that have AutoCorrect options, you can create the en dash by typing space hyphen hyphen space. Most PC users can also create the en dash by holding down the ALT key and typing 0150 on the keypad. (You MUST use the keypad and not the number keys above the letters!) For web pages, using the entity – (starts with the ampersand and ends with the semicolon) in the markup will display an en dash on the displayed page. Some style guides say there should be spaces around en dashes; others insist on no spaces. It is largely a matter of preference.

The en dash is probably the least-used of the three, because of the very specialized use. It is used primarily to denote ranges and certain open compound words. Examples:

“The years 2001–2003 were our most profitable ever!” (range)
“Fighting erupted on the Israeli–Palestine border.” (open compound)

Em Dashes

An em dash is the longest of the three, running the width of the letter “m”, as in: —. To make an em dash in an AutoCorrect-enabled processor, type two hyphens between the words to link with no spaces. Holding ALT and typing 0151 on the keypad will also create an em dash. The HTML entity to show an em dash on a web page is — (again, make sure to include the ampersand and the semicolon). Unlike en dashes, em dashes should never be set off with spaces.

Some style guides say that in informal writing, the em dash can be used in place of colons, semicolons, and even commas. When writing for publication, though, avoid this informal usage and stick to the main purposes of the em dash, which are for interruptions, emphasized appositive phrases, and abrupt changes of thought. Examples:

“What in the—?” (interruption)
“You are the first person—the only person—I have ever loved.” (emphasized appositive phrase)
“I just wish that you—never mind.” (abrupt change of thought)

Abusing these aspects of punctuation only annoys editors. 🙂 So, try to learn everything you can about the punctuations you use before you use them. Don’t make assumptions. Make sure you’re using them correctly so they can add to your writing, not detract.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2015 10:23 am

    Actually, the best HTML codes for en and em dashes is “& # 1 5 0 ;” and “& # 1 5 1 ;” respectively, whereas the HTML for the hyphen is “& # 4 5 ;” (without the quotes and spaces, obviously). This is because they’re similar to the Alt codes, making them easy to remember. Just sayin’.

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