Dashes are used in all types of writing for many different reasons. To the untrained eye (which is almost everyone, including lots of seasoned writers) these dashes are all the same. However, all dashes are not created equal and you may get dinged by an editor if you use the wrong one in the wrong situation.

Confused? I feel your pain. Dashes come in three different varieties. You have your hyphen, the em-dash and the en-dash. It’s challenging to write effectively and use immaculate grammar when you make mistakes that you didn’t even know were mistakes.  Read on!

The Hyphen

Let’s start with the hyphen, as this one seems simple enough. A hyphen is a dash that connects two words that are intimately related to one another. Some examples include words like two-thirds and toll-free. Hyphens also connect certain compound words like mass-produced. Many compound words are considered closed and don’t require hyphenation, but that’s for another post at another time. Numbers that are grouped together like a telephone number 800-123-4567 also use hyphens to connect them together.

The En-Dash

Next on the list is the en-dash. This dash is noticeably longer than the hyphen, and is used to connect items related to one another by distance. Some examples include April–July or pages 100–300. The en-dash specifies a range, where other words, items or numbers are included but not mentioned between the first and last entries.

The Em-Dash

The em-dash is the longest of the three dashes. You can use the em-dash as you would use parentheses, to add an additional thought to a sentence, or use it to break up a long sentence with several commas to make it more manageable. In the sentence from the first paragraph, the em-dash could have been used to insert a thought into the sentence instead of the parentheses: “To the untrained eye — which is almost everyone, including lots of seasoned writers — these dashes are all the same.”

We Have You Covered

Don’t feel discouraged if this is all as clear as a bucket of mud. Some of you probably didn’t even know these different dashes existed, let alone know when to use which one in what circumstance.

Luckily, many readers won’t know that you’re misusing your dashes, but for documents, reports and papers that require accuracy on all fronts, quit pulling your hair out and let us take a look before you submit it — you’ll be happy you did!