Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes

Here’s a sign I saw yesterday at a church:

We are saved by grace -not by works.

The theology may be sound but the punctuation sure is lacking.

My topic today is the difference between hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—).*

1. Hyphens

Hyphens are the most common of the three. Soft hyphens are the ones we use to break words at the end of a line. Hard hyphens are the ones we use in compound words and expressions, regardless of where in the sentence they occur. Here are some examples of hard hyphens:

twenty-three
sister-in-law
a down-to-earth approach

2. En dashes

En dashes are a little longer than hyphens. They are used mostly between numbers to indicate ‘up to’ as in these examples:

10:30–11:30 a.m.
pages 37–45
2010–2012

By the way, a common mistake is to use an en dash with a preposition, like this:

from 10:30–11:30 a.m.

You could correct this by using either two prepositions or none at all:

10:30–11:30 a.m.
from 10:30 until 11:30 a.m.

3. Em dashes

Finally, em dashes are the longest of the three. They are used to add another idea to a sentence. Sometimes two are used together similar to the way we use parentheses, as in this example from my April newsletter:

A hundred years ago this month—on April 15, 1912—the Titanic sank off the coast of Canada.

Note that em dashes are also usually used without any spaces.

Now, if we return to my initial example at the top, you’ll see that a hyphen was used where an em dash should have been used (and with a space before but not after it, which added to the confusion). Correctly punctuated, the sentence would read:

We are saved by grace—not by works.

Good punctuation improves readability. Take care with your hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

Dirk

dirk_kievit@editors.ca
www.DirkKievit.org

*Note: You can find all three of them in Word under Insert/Symbols/Special Characters. For other ways of inserting them, see this article.

(Image at top courtesy of scottchan.)

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Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. Bill Van Dam

     /  April 30, 2012

    Hi Dirk,
    Thanks for getting me in on this.
    Bill

    Reply
  2. Thanks, Heidi. Yes, each of them has further uses. I’ve touched only on what seemed to me to be the most common usage of each here. I don’t remember ever learning about em dashes and en dashes and how they differ from hyphens until my first copyediting course, so no wonder people are getting them wrong.

    Reply
  3. Good blog, Dirk. These tips will be useful for many writers!
    You can also use the em-dash when dialogue is cut off in the middle of a sentence, but when you want to indicate a pause, the ellipses will serve well there. I’m sure you’ll enlighten us more on that subject!

    Reply

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