Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes

As the supermarkets begin to stock their shelves with exploding hat-and-joke containers, stuffing-flavour crisps and puddings nobody likes, Michael Bublé comes out of his long hibernation. Listen. He is warming up his voice. ‘A kiss is just a kiss,’ he sings. ‘A sigh is just a sigh.’ But is a dash just a dash? Is it, Michael? You didn’t think about that, did you? All you think about is singing lovely covers of songs from the Great American Songbook.

Now, we’ll never be the Sinatras of our generation, but punctuation is where we shine. And the fact is, a dash is not just a dash. If you’re reading our blog, you’re probably well on your way to becoming a professional freelance proofreader, so you might already know that there are three different types of dash: hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. However, it never hurts to brush up on when and where each of these should be used.

Hyphens

The hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three dashes. It is mainly used to link parts of words, particularly in hyphenated compounds. Hyphens are used:

  • When a term is conventionally hyphenated (e.g. man-at-arms)
  • When using a compound adjective before the word it modifies (e.g. a three-person household)
  • For clarity, such as when omitting the hyphen would create a different word (e.g. re-present for presenting something again)
  • When referring to time spans or ages (e.g. a seven-year-old girl)
  • When writing out two-word numbers between 21 and 99 (e.g. thirty-three)
  • When a prefix would otherwise result in letter collision (e.g. re-evaluate)

There are exceptions to these rules, such as the last one and the prefix co-. In fact, coordinate and cooperate are more common than co-ordinate and co-operate (but both are accepted, so the key for a proofreader is to ensure one spelling is used consistently).

In other cases, a hyphen may be necessary to prevent confusion. It could, for instance, be the difference between a man eating lion and a man-eating lion. The first is ambiguous: it may refer to a person sampling a surprising food. The second clearly refers to a lion you should avoid.

En Dashes

The en dash (–) is rather longer and thinner than the hyphen. It is used:

  • In ranges of numbers (e.g. John Lennon, 1940–1980)
  • In scores (e.g. We beat the opposition 2–0)
  • When indicating conflict or connection (e.g. The Labour–Tory debate)
  • To link words in compound adjectives when they already include compounds or proper nouns (e.g. An American diner–inspired café)

En dashes may also be used parenthetically, especially in British English. Typically, when using en dashes like this, you would have a space before and after each dash:

If you’re a decent proofreader – as I’m sure you are – you’ll use dashes correctly.

Em dashes

The em dash (—) is the longest of all dashes. These dashes are mainly used to set off parenthetical information, especially in US English, like so:

These days, Christmas—the most magical time of the year—seems to start in October.

Some style guides recommend placing spaces before and after each dash, but this is not usually the case. Don’t forget to check your client’s style guide.

Em dashes may also be used like a colon to indicate extra information:

Once Halloween is over I only feel like one thinglistening to Michael Bublé.

They can also be used in fiction to indicate interrupted dialogue:

‘Halloween’s over, so merry—’ began Robin, and then Batman slapped him round the face.