by Annette Lyon
Question: What’s the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash? How do I use them and (more importantly) how do I make each of them with my word processor?
Good question! I’ve heard it many times—often from writers who are in a near panic state.
The answer is actually pretty simple, and while I had a lengthy way of explaining it at a class I taught at a conference a couple of months ago, another editor gave me a simpler way of explaining it that I’ll use now. (Thanks, Lisa!)
Here we go:
Each of these is a dash that gets progressively longer and connects progressively more important pieces of information.
Hyphens connect words.
En dashes connect numbers.
Em dashes connect thoughts.
That's pretty much it.
But I'll explain a bit further:
Hyphens connect words.
For example, compound adjectives.
"That was the best chocolate-dipped strawberry ever!"
Hyphens are easy to make, since they have a key all their own, right next to the zero on your keyboard.
En dashes connect numbers:
"I’ve been a chocoholic all my life, but had a really bad bout from 2004–2006 when I wandered Hershey, Pennsylvania in a theobromine drunken blur."
The dash you see between the years is an EN dash.
How to create in en dash:
In Word: Type a space, then one hyphen. Continue typing another word, then a space.
The hyphen will turn into an en dash.
A caveat: You’ll need to delete the first space. You should never have a space on either side of an en dash.
In Word Perfect: Type two hyphens and then a space. The hyphens turn into an en dash.
Em dashes connect thoughts. In fiction, em dashes can also act as parenthetical interrupters.
"Hand over the chocolate—even the white chocolate crap—and no one gets hurt."
I love using em dashes—they allow for pauses not quite as long as a period, but longer than a comma. (See? I just used another one!)
One trick, however, is to make sure that if you use an em dash as a parenthetical that you don’t open with an em dash and close with a comma or vice versa, such as:
"Hand over the chocolate—even the white chocolate crap, and no one gets hurt."
You could use commas or em dashes for both interrupters. It’s really the length of pause you like. But be consistent whichever you choose.
As for how you make the em dash:
In Word: Type two hyphens, another word, then a space. The hyphens turn into an em dash.
This usually works just fine. If you have something unusual in your sentence (like you need the em dash to be followed by quotation marks when a character is being interrupted), you may have to trick the program by just typing a regular word and then a space to get the em dash, then deleting whatever you need to and typing the quote marks. (If you use Word, you’re used to having to trick it periodically, right?)
In Word Perfect: Type three hyphens, then a space or the next word.
In Word and Word Perfect, en and em dashes are also part of the IBM character sets. You can search for them if you want to just insert the right character.
And just as with en dashes, you never, ever, want a space on either side of an em dash.
By and large, if you're a fiction writer, you can likely ignore the EN dash completely, since you're unlikely to be quoting statistics and page numbers. You may need the hyphen here and there for compound adjectives.
And the em dash is definitely your friend.
If you have further questions on any of these dashes, send them in!