Hyphens, En Dash, Em Dash — Oh My!

Hyphen, en dash and em dash — oh my! I mentioned these to my writing group over the weekend and was surprised no one was the full bottle. I shouldn’t have been surprised because I only investigated dashes a couple of years ago and chalked my ignorance up to gaps in my public schooling. Admittedly, I do get secretly smug when writers use the hyphen for… everything… but that was me, not that long ago. Keep reading and you can be smug too! We’ll start a “dash” club! Or not…

Note to self: People who tell lame jokes should never be smug.

As my friend Steph suggested, there are three dashes — the little one ( – ), the medium one ( – ), and the big one ( — ). I love this because if I can simplify something in my head, I will. On that note, I will point out, my intent for the post is to help beginners understand the basics and not act as a grammar queen. Believe me, there is always something new to learn.


The little one, aka the hyphen (-), is the smallest of the three and is the most commonly used, the most familiar, and misused as the jack of all trades when a dash is required. The hyphen has a designated key on keyboards (near the delete button). The purpose of the hyphen is to link words together. Think mother-in-law, 13-years-old, e-mail, pro-life/pro-choice. Double-barrel surnames are also hyphenated.  


The medium one, aka the en dash, is the same size as the letter “N” (–). The purpose of the en dash is to replace the word “to” – Spring–Autumn, 1981–1999, or London–Paris.

A spaced en dash can be used to break up a sentence (like the previous sentence between “to” and “spring”). Caution this is a British English option, usually, breaking up a sentence is the role of an em dash.

The en dash can also substitute the maths minus sign, and in rare cases used to substitute a hyphen and connect words. 

The en dash doesn’t have a designated key on the keyboard (flipping annoying). On a Mac, use the shortcut “option + hyphen”. On a mobile device, try a long press on the hyphen button (a choice of three options should appear, select the middle dash).  


The big one, aka the em dash, is the same size as the letter “M” (—). Since discovering the em dash, she’s become my go-to because I can express in the text the way I talk. Below are nifty ways an em dash can be used.

A substitute for brackets (parentheses), colons (:), semicolons (;), and ellipsis (…): 
My head ached from drinking too much — why do I do it to myself?


Interruption of speech or thoughts: 
“Charlie’s humping the —” 


Represent omitted letters (2 em dashes) or words (3 em dashes): 
F—— this 
S—— a brick, 
A b—— is a female dog
It was revealed, that ——— killed Laura Palmer. 


Quote source:
Don’t you dare quote me! Get your own quotes. Wow, you’re so lazy. 
— The Muse

Like the en dash, the em dash doesn’t have a designated key on the keyboard. On the Mac, I use the shortcut “shift + option + hyphen”. On a mobile device, try a long press on the hyphen button (a choice of three options should appear, select the big one). Some apps are awesome and will transform two hyphens into an em dash.


Because the English language never is never b—— straightforward, there are some other dashes reserved for the nerdy. It gives me a headache. But the hyphen, en dash, and em dash are common dashes and appear to substitute for the uncommon ones with their multi-functions. There is also a debate between British English and American English over whether to use an en dash with spaces to break up sentences or an em dash. The en dash option is a British quirk. As an Australian, I use whatever the heck I want. I am team biggy with a space — easier to read. Whatever you chose, the key is being consistent.

PS. ProWritingAid doesn’t like en dashes being used in this manner. 

Categories: Language, Writers' Tool Box, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: