First off, no mat­ter what any­one tells you, this is not the dash key:

hyphen key

That’s a hyphen on that key. Also, press­ing it twice does not equal a dash.

There are three main sym­bols that are often mis­tak­en: hyphen, en dash, and em dash. I’ll dis­cuss those in this arti­cle. Oth­ers, such as the fig­ure dash, hor­i­zon­tal bar, minus sign, and swung dash have quite spe­cif­ic uses, which you can read about else­where; although I might address them at a lat­er date.


A hyphen (-) is the short­est of the three. It’s also the eas­i­est to type since it has its own key.

Usage of the hyphen can be com­pli­cat­ed; after all, The Cana­di­an Style uses up 11 pages to dis­cuss it. Don’t fret, how­ev­er; there are a few tips to help you in most sit­u­a­tions:

  1. Hyphens join com­pound mod­i­fiers and the word it mod­i­fies (e.g. tight-fit­ting Speedos or pre­vi­ous­ly-bought pep­pers)
  2. Hyphens join parts of a word when the word is split between lines (usu­al­ly in jus­ti­fied text)
  3. Hyphens some­times sep­a­rate pre­fix­es and suf­fix­es. This is not very com­mon and usu­al­ly reserved for clar­i­ty (e.g. co-op vs. coop, re-treat vs. retreat, and re-cre­ation vs. recre­ation)

En dash

The en dash ( – ) is the mid­dle child of the three: not as long as the em dash but longer than the hyphen. It gets its name from the fact that it’s as wide as a cap­i­tal N. Here’s how to type it.

The en dash is less robust than the hyphen, appear­ing in 3 spe­cif­ic instances:

  1. Indi­cate range of num­bers (e.g. pages 22 – 34, the 2014 – 15 school year, 50 – 60 apples)
  2. Attach­es a pre­fix or suf­fix to an unhy­phen­at­ed com­pound phrase (e.g. Sev­en Per­sons – based sausage com­pa­ny, pre – World War II pover­ty)
  3. Joins the names of two places (e.g. Edmon­ton – Cal­gary cor­ri­dor, Van­cou­ver – Hon­olu­lu flight)

Em dash

There’s a rea­son the em dash ( — ) is so big: it means busi­ness. When you see an em dash, every­one stops to pay atten­tion. Here’s how to type it.

The em dash is a par­en­thet­i­cal mark (like com­mas and paren­the­ses), but unlike paren­the­ses, which appear to down­play their con­tents, em dash­es empha­size their con­tent. Instead of whis­per­ing the par­en­thet­i­cal thought, they shout it.

Use em dash­es to inter­rupt abrupt­ly, when com­mas just wont do.

  • One of the great things — and mark my words that there are many great things — about the Lon­don Road Neigh­bour­hood is the treed canopies cov­er­ing the streets.
  • On your way home, pick up some cheese, oranges, milk, and choco­late — don’t even think about com­ing in the door with­out any choco­late.

Do you use these marks reg­u­lar­ly? Let me know in the com­ments below.


About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

Free monthlywriting &social media tips!

Free monthlywriting &social media tips!

Sign up to receive monthly writing and social media tips.

Thanks for signing up for our monthly writing tips!

Pin It on Pinterest