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Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes, oh My!

You've no doubt seen dashes in writing, but did you know there's more than one type of dash? In fact, there are several and careful attention must be paid to which one you use in any given situation.

Let's start with the trusted hyphen. It's used to connect words and modify verbs and nouns. For example: "It was a star-studded party." I used a hyphen to connect "star" and "studded" to describe what kind of party it was. This is called a compound adjective. However, a general rule of thumb is that compound adjectives after the noun they modify are not hyphenated. Example: "The party was star studded."

Hyphens can also be used to create original compound verbs when you need a little extra pizzazz. You could make the sentence "I palm-slapped that pimp." Hopefully, you'll never need to form that particular sentence, but you have the freedom to.

In addition, hyphens can be used to indicate a range of values, like 30-40 people, April-August, 1983-2019, etc. An en dash is acceptable as well (and many publishers prefer to use that instead). You would also hyphenate spelled-out fractions when they are adjectives or adverbs. For example: "Three-fourths." For nouns, you don’t hyphenate (in Chicago Manual of Style, anyway).

Now, let's discuss en dashes. These are typically half the length of a capital M. I feel Wikipedia gives a great definition of en dashes: "The three main uses of the en dash are to connect symmetric items, such as the two ends of a range or two competitors or alternatives, as a substitute for a hyphen in a compound when one of the connected items is more complex than a single word, and as an interruptor [sic?] at sentence level, substituting for a pair of commas, parentheses, or to indicate a rhetorical pause. As an interruptor, the en dash is "open" – spaced on both sides – and is an alternative to the em dash—which is closed." ( For example: "I attended the Kiss–Foreigner concert." Because the concert featured both Kiss and Foreigner, it gets an en dash to specify that fact.

Can't tell the difference between a hyphen and an en dash? Here they are side-by-side: - – (the en dash is the longer one on the right).

Finally, we have to talk about em dashes. These are named for the fact they are the length of a capital M. Em dashes are used to separate a separate clause in a sentence. "I told Terry—as I often do—that he should take his vitamins, eat his vegetables, and say his prayers." Basically, in this sentence, the speaker briefly breaks off to give related information within the same sentence. Em dashes are the easiest to spot as they are the longest.

There are many more things to note when using dashes, and to tell them here would take all day. Instead, head on over to or Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this article.