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What’s the deal with dashes?

En dash, em dash, hyphen–when do you use them? Which one do you use? How on earth can you tell them apart? If you’re not a professional copyeditor, you might never have considered the need to use more than one kind of dash. While the wrong dash is more of a technical error than a content error, it’s important to the overall impact of the manuscripts’ presence that the dashes are done correctly.

The first dash to discuss is the en dash. This workhorse connects ranges such as dates or numbers and carries with it a general meaning of ‘to’ or ‘through.’ So, 2010 to 2012 would correctly be written as 2010­–2012, not 2010—2012 (em dash) or 2010-2012 (hyphen). There are several ways to type in an en dash:

  1. Press the ‘Ctrl’ and ‘-’ keys simultaneously.­

  2. Go to the Insert tab in Word and look to the far right. Click ‘Symbol’ and then ‘more symbols.’ When the window opens, click ‘subset’ and pull the menu down to select general punctuation. There you will find hyphens, em dashes and en dashes. Click the appropriate dash and then hit the ‘insert’ button.

  3. Utilize the character codes for each individual type of dash. These codes can be found when you click on the character of choice in the symbol window using the preceding instructions. Find instructions for this method from Microsoft here:

Joining compound words, the hyphen is the dash we were all taught in school. This is the shortest of the three dashes and the one most commonly used. If we’re discussing state-of-the-art technology, the hyphen is what holds the phrase together. It can also help clarify how a word is to be understood:

Tom, you need to recover the couch.

Tom, you need to re-cover the couch.

Does Tom need to pick up the couch from the neighbors’ party? Or does the couch need new fabric to get rid of that nasty 90’s floral? The hyphen—located on your keyboard—needs no shortcuts to type, which is likely why it’s so overused. Used properly, it clarifies the authors’ meaning easily.

The em dash might be the most powerful of the three dashes discussed here. It can take the place of commas, parenthesis, or colons and can be used to add emphasis right where the author wants it. Consider the following examples:

The jury came back with the verdict—guilty.

My order arrived—three months late—and was immediately put to use.

The em dash can convey tone and emotion by the placement of emphasis, and makes the content it brackets stand out. The longest of the three dashes, it’s typically the width of a capital ‘M.’ You can type the em dash using options 2 and 3 above, or by typing ‘ctrl’ and ‘alt’ and ‘-’ simultaneously.

Using em dashes (—), en dashes (–), and hyphens (-) correctly can bring your writing to the next level and give it a polished professional look. Precision in punctuation is pleasing to the eye and makes your work easier to understand; something every author can aspire to.

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