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How to use a hyphen, an en dash and an em dash

Do you get confused when using a hyphen, en dash and em dash? Find out the difference and how we use them in this week’s writing tip.

A hyphen (-) is used to combine two words; for example:  

to create an adjective before a noun:

–             a 3-year-old child, a two-year lease, a five-kilometre journey, a three-week holiday

to create some nouns from phrasal verbs:

–             a set-up, a pile-up, a start-up, a check-in desk

(Although phrasal verbs (verb + preposition), such as “to take off”, “to take over” and “to set up”, are not hyphenated, the nouns formed from these verbs are hyphenated.)

for some titles or descriptions of relationships:

–             editor-in-chief, mother-in-law

with an adverb+adjective before a noun:

–             a well-adjusted person, a fast-moving object, a far-fetched story

with two nouns representing different functions:

a writer-proofreader, a dinner-dance

An en dash (–) is used for duration of time and dates. They are shorter than the em dash. 

–             1995–2005  

–             2–4 p.m.

An em dash (—) is used in place of brackets or parentheses to join clauses together. It’s the longest of the dashes, and you can insert a space on either side or not — different organizations have different style rules about the spacing.  The em dash is also used at the end of a sentence when someone’s speech is cut off.

–             We would like to invite you—and your staff—to our end-of-term gathering.

–             I’ve invited everyone — what do you think?


Carol Waites (PhD)

Presentation/editing by Christina O’Shaughnessy (editor)

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