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  • Writer's pictureSara Kuehl

Hyphens and Dashes: What's the Difference and How to Use Them

Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes can be confusing. Understand the differences and how to use this punctuation for clear, engaging writing.

Green leaves against a white wall with text overlay "hyphens & dashes"

Hyphens and dashes look a lot alike, but they serve different functions. Used correctly, these little pieces of punctuation add clarity and style to your writing.


Here, we’ll review 3 punctuation marks:

We’ll go over examples of when and how to use hyphens and dashes effectively. Plus, you’ll learn the keyboard shortcuts for each punctuation mark.


Hyphens

The hyphen (-) looks like a minus sign and is sometimes confused with a dash. This little punctuation mark connects words or parts of words in all sorts of ways.


When to Use a Hyphen

The hyphen is most often used to join words or separate word parts:

  • Connect a word with certain prefixes like ex-, all-, or self- (ex-boyfriend, all-inclusive, self-fulfilling)

  • Connect a word with certain suffixes such as -elect or -like (president-elect, plant-like)

  • Create a compound adjective before a noun (kind-hearted person, record-breaking year)

  • Create a compound noun (pick-me-up, mother-in-law)

  • Create a compound number (fifty-one, twenty-eight)

Note: Whether dual-heritage terms like “African American” or “Mexican American” should be hyphenated has been debated for years. As of 2019, AP style no longer hyphenates these terms. Other style guides recommend a more nuanced approach or following the subject’s preference for more inclusive language.

You can also separate word parts with a hyphen to make sure your meaning is clear:

  • Separate 2 vowels when they make a word hard to read (anti-inflammatory)

  • Ensure your reader understands which word you mean (re-creation vs. recreation)

Lastly, a hyphen can show how a line should be read:

  • Indicate a stutter (I’m c-c-c-cold.)

  • Spell out a word letter by letter (My name is Sara: s-a-r-a.)


How to Type a Hyphen

Typing a hyphen is simple because it has a dedicated key on your keyboard. You’ll find the hyphen key to the right of the zero key at the top of most keyboards.



En Dashes

An en dash (–) gets its name from its size: the width of the letter “N.” It’s slightly longer than a hyphen.


When to Use an En Dash

The en dash is a connector. It replaces the words “to” or “through” to show:

  • a range of numbers (The test covered material from chapters 4–6.)

  • a span of time (The gym will be closed Monday–Thursday next week.)

  • sports scores (The Eagles beat the Yellowjackets 27–13.)

When I’m copyediting or proofreading, this piece of punctuation is the one I find most often overlooked. Some organizations’ style guides even prefer to use the hyphen now instead of the en dash for simplicity. Unless otherwise stated, go for the en dash.


How to Type an En Dash

Typing an en dash is a little tricky because you’ll need to memorize a keyboard shortcut:

  • PC: hold the alt key + type 0150

  • Mac: hold the option key + press the hyphen key

  • Chromebook: Hold both the shift and ctrl keys + press U. Then type 2013 + enter.

Punctuation Mark

How to Type on PC

How to Type on Mac

How to Type on Chromebook

​En dash (–)

Alt + 0150

Option + Hyphen

Shift + Ctrl + U + 2013


Em Dashes

As a professional copywriter, one of my favorite pieces of punctuation is the em dash (—). Sometimes called a long dash, the em dash is a versatile attention grabber that can add personality and emphasis to your writing.


The em dash is even wider than the en dash at—you guessed it—the width of the letter “M.”


When to Use an Em Dash

Here are 3 places to use the em dash instead of a comma, colon, or parentheses to create more visual emphasis in your writing.


1. Add emphasis by setting information apart from the rest of the sentence


You can emphasize information at the end of a sentence with a single em dash:


Get the healthcare you deserve—without the headache.


Now, you could just as easily use a comma instead of an em dash here. But it doesn’t create that same dramatic effect:


Get the healthcare you deserve, without the headache.


You can also use a pair of em dashes to emphasize information in the middle of a sentence:


Most college students graduate with federal loan debt—over $37,000 on average—that takes years to pay off.


Notice the difference in how you read and interpret this example when we use parentheses instead of em dashes:


Most college students graduate with federal loan debt (over $37,000 on average) that takes years to pay off.


The em dashes call out the dollar amount, while the parentheses downplay it, almost as an aside. Both are grammatically correct; it all depends on the effect you want to create.



2. Mark an abrupt change in direction or thought


Sometimes your sentence needs to make a sudden turn. Enter the em dash. For example:


I’d like to order the fish—no, the chicken tacos.


You’ll also see an em dash when a speaker is interrupted:


“You never listen when I—”



3. Insert a list, definition, or clarification


A list, definition, or clarification might not be necessary to understand a sentence, but it can provide extra information or helpful context. You can set off this kind of information with em dashes:


Freud theorized the personality has 3 parts—id, ego, and superego—that shape an individual’s behavior.


Amy's best friend—her dog, that is—travels everywhere with her.


As you see in these examples, the em dash is rather dramatic. Used too often, it will lose its punch. Save the em dash for special occasions.



How to Type an Em Dash

While the hyphen appears to share a key with a dash on your keyboard, that long line is actually an underscore (_). And unless you’re writing on a typewriter or lettering a comic, do not use 2 individual hyphens (--) in place of an actual em dash (—).


As with the en dash, you’ll need a keyboard shortcut to type an em dash:

  • PC: Hold the alt key + type 0151.

  • Mac: Hold both the option and shift keys + press the hyphen key.

  • Chromebook: Hold both the shift and ctrl keys + press U. Then type 2014 + enter.

Punctuation Mark

How to Type on PC

How to Type on Mac

How to Type on Chromebook

​Em dash (—)

​Alt + 0151

​Option + Shift + Hyphen

​Shift + Ctrl + U + 2014

Whether you include spaces on either side of an em dash depends on your style guide. AP style, for instance, adds a space before and after em dashes; Chicago style does not.


Using 2-em dashes

A 2-em dash is used more rarely than the rest. And it might look strange because it's double the length of an em dash.


A 2-em dash indicates missing or omitted information. In this example, 2-em dashes disguise the witness’s name to protect her identity and “bleep out” a slur or expletive:


Ms. W—— testified that the defendant shouted, “I’ll get you, ——!” before fleeing the scene on foot.


Multiple em dashes can also stand in for indecipherable text. Primary source documents, for instance, may have illegible handwriting, faded ink, water damage, or torn pages. Use 2-em dashes for any text you can't make out when you quote from these kinds of documents.


To insert a 2-em dash, simply type the em dash 2 times in a row.



Keyboard Shortcuts for Dashes and Hyphens

Punctuation Mark

How to Type on PC

How to Type on Mac

How to Type on Chromebook

Hyphen (-)

Hyphen key

​Hyphen key

​Hyphen key

​En dash (–)

Alt + 0150

Option + Hyphen

Shift + Ctrl + U + 2013

​​Em dash (—)

​​Alt + 0151

​​Option + Shift + Hyphen

​Shift + Ctrl + U + 2014

 

Using hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes correctly shows a level of professionalism and sophistication in your writing.


Consider the context of what you’re writing before you hit that hyphen key. As you use the 2 types of dashes more, you’ll memorize those keyboard shortcuts in no time! Or bookmark this page for whenever you need a refresher.


If you'd like to have an expert fine-tune your copy or content, check out my editing services. We'll work together to make sure you have a polished final product.

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