You’re Probably Using Hyphens & Dashes Wrong.

Over the last week, I have read an inordinate amount of material in which the authors (many of them professionals!) used hyphens and dashes incorrectly. While I’m a firm believer that punctuation isn’t the most important consideration with good writing, I still think we should know the rules before we break them.

So! I’ve written a quick guide on how to properly employ hyphens and dashes so that you can master their use before deciding when to toss everything out the proverbial window.

The Hyphen, En Dash, and Em Dash: Do You Know the Difference?

These three punctuation marks may look similar, but they each fulfill a different purpose in writing. The trio’s shortest mark is the hyphen, while the “mid-sized” mark is the en dash, and the longest mark is the em dash. (“N” occupies a smaller amount of space than “M” in typesetting, hence their names.)

Let’s look at them individually to see when you would want to use them.

The Hyphen

You typically want to use the hyphen to combine words (e.g. “well-being” or “high-quality products”) or to separate non-inclusive numbers (e.g. phone numbers or social security numbers).

The En Dash

You generally want to use the en dash in lieu of “through,” which most commonly happens with ranges for dates or page numbers (e.g. “We’ll be on vacation July 21–July 24” or “Read pages 12–34 for tomorrow”).

The Em Dash

This mark is fairly versatile and can be used in place of commas, parentheses, or colons. Here are examples of each:

Replacing Commas

  • The book, which was very easy to read, is selling quite well.
  • The book—which was very easy to read—is selling quite well.

Replacing Parentheses

  • Numerous professionals (teachers, writers, and lawyers) will be attending the conference.
  • Numerous professionals—teachers, writers, and lawyers—will be attending the conference.

Replacing Colons

  • The most exciting element of a script comes down to one thing: drama.
  • The most exciting element of a script comes down to one thing—drama.

Note that the em dash is generally more emphatic and less formal than the other punctuation marks, and you probably don’t want to have more than one set of em dashes in a sentence.

4 Other Things to Keep in Mind for Hyphens, En dashes, and Em dashes

1. There should be no spaces before or after hyphens or dashes, except for the “hanging hyphen” (e.g. “nineteenth- and twentieth-century books”). Unless you’re a newspaper or following the AP style, which does include spaces before and after the em dash (c’mon now, AP).

2. If you use the em dash at the end of the sentence, you only need one.

  • I was over an hour late for the meeting—what a nightmare.

3. If you’re using em dashes in lieu of parentheses, there’s no need to keep the surrounding punctuation marks. For example:

  • After reading the resumes (over 200 of them), the manager decided to interview three candidates.
  • After reading the resumes—over 200 of them—the manager decided to interview three candidates.

4. You can use two em dashes in place of names or to signal missing portions of words in documents like transcripts (e.g. “Ms. —— testified in court” or “These dashes are a pain in the a——“).

5. If you’re using Word/PC, you can insert an em dash into your text with ctrl+alt+the minus symbol or by typing two hyphens in a row (just don’t put any spaces before or after the marks).

Note: I believe the command for Mac users is shift + option + minus keys, but I don’t own one and couldn’t test this. Leave me a comment if I’m wrong!

And there you have it. A succinct guide for using hyphens and dashes correctly. If and when you decide to ignore these rules, I suggest having a good reason for doing so. For example, dramatic license or you’re in the midst of a heated Internet argument with no time for correct punctuation.

More to Come!

Join me again later this week as we explore more about the strategies of good writing. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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