Making sense of dashes and hyphens

Most people treat all horizontal lines the same when writing, but there are actually important (and easy to understand) rules separating them.

The three “dashes” that seem to be used interchangeably are the “em dash,” the “en dash” and the hyphen. In about five minutes we will have you using these correctly from here on out!

Em dashes (—)

The em dash earns its name by being the width of the letter “m.” It’s the widest of the three and the most useful as a tool in punctuation. The em dash is fairly versatile. You can use it the same way semi-colons are used; semi-colons are used to separate two complete but linked sentences.

Ex: I came home yesterday to find my door wide open — I immediately began to imagine all the possibilities that waited inside.

It can also be used to set something apart — not unlike parentheses or commas might.

Ex: She always arrived at school late — but only by a few minutes — went straight to her desk and laid her head down.

The way you create an em dash is unfortunately more complicated than it should be. Hold down the Alt key, then hit 0151. This works for most “PC” programs, but Apple allows you to choose it in a list of extra characters.

En dashes (–)

The en dash is so called because — you guessed it — it is the width of an “n.” This symbol is used almost exclusively to replace the words “through” or “to” in a range of dates or other numbers.

Ex: Jim is coming to Raleigh June 18–21. When he gets here we will study chapters 9-15 together.

If you start the range with the word “from” then don’t use the en dash; just say to.

Ex: Jim will be in Raleigh from June 18 to June 21.

To create the en dash, hit the Alt key, then hit 0150 on Windows and choose it from the list of symbols on a Mac.

Hyphens (-)

The hyphen has the privilege of actually being on most keyboards. It’s used to link words together. Generally if you are using two or more words together to act like one word, a hyphen will be used.

Ex: This is a state-of-the-art television, George!

“State-of-the-art” is acting as one word describing the television. None of these words alone would be able to operate effectively to describe the television. Sometimes these words will be combined into a compound word eventually if they are used enough and cram together nicely.

That’s it!

Now you know the difference between an em dash, an en dash and a hyphen. If you really don’t care about these kinds of things and just want somebody to write for you though, that’s where we can come in.

First Page Creative is a writing service out of Raleigh, N.C. that provides work in journalism, marketing or creative writing styles. Call us at 703-408-6763 to learn more or email


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