Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Got to dash? Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes

These little lines cause more than a little confusion. Here’s a quick-fire introduction to how to use them.


Let’s start with hyphens, as they’re the easiest (at least in theory!).

Hyphens are used exclusively to join parts of words, either within compounds or across lines. For example:

  • a five-year-old boy
  • a well-established rule
  • eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature
  • Everyone likes being involved in decision-making.
  • You can determine whether Word breaks words at the ends of lines by going to the ‘Para-
    graph’ tab then ‘Lines and Page Breaks’, and switching on or off ‘Widow/Orphan control’.

En dashes

Spaced en dashes

An en dash with a space on either side is used to create a relationship between parts of sentences. It creates a looser and less formal connection than a colon, a semicolon* or brackets, and is also useful for avoiding potentially confusing commas. For example:

  • Western nations are reducing their reliance on fossil fuels – coal, crude oil and natural gas.
  • High-achievers don’t avoid difficulty – on the contrary, they thrive on it.
  • Samuel Beckett – born in Ireland in 1906 – spent most of his adult life in France and wrote many of his works in French.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, Word will automatically convert a spaced hyphen to a spaced en dash when you start typing after the second space. If, for some reason, it doesn’t, you can insert one with the keyboard shortcut Alt + 0150.

*For advice on how to use colons and semicolons, see these previous blog posts:

Closed-up en dashes

An en dash without spaces is used mainly to signify ‘to’ in a number/date range, as in these examples:

  • 25–30-year-olds
  • 1st–15th May

However, it is not considered correct to mix words and en dashes. For instance, the same date range can be expressed as:

  • between 1990 and 2010
  • from 1990 to 2010
  • in 1990–2010

A closed-up en dash is also used to indicate a relationship between two people/things. For instance, the ‘Born–Haber cycle’ is named after two scientists, Max Born and Fritz Haber, and the en dash serves to distinguish this relationship from any theories by a scientist with the double-barrelled surname Born-Haber. Similarly, ‘African–American trade deals’ (a relationship between Africa and America) would take an en dash, while ‘African-American writers’ (just a compound adjective, not a relationship) would take a hyphen.

Em dashes

These seem to be rarely used these days, but are often found in works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature to replace brackets or a colon (like the spaced en dash), or to indicate a missing word or interruption.

Unlike the en dash, the em dash is used without a space on either side. Here are some examples from Dickens’ Great Expectations:

  • My sister, sir,—Mrs. Joe Gargery,—wife of Joe Gargery
  • “If you had been born such, would you have been here now? Not you—ˮ

The commas in the first example are possibly overkill, but, even in his own time, Dickens was already known for his love of excess punctuation!

Coming back to hyphens

I started by saying that hyphens are the easiest in theory – the difficulty is, of course, in knowing in practice which compounds to hyphenate. But I really have got to dash, and that will have to be the topic of a future blog post.

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Posted in Proofreading/copy-editing, Punctuation