Hyphens [ - ] and Dashes [ ] [ ]

Hyphens and dashes come in different sizes and serve different functions. Don’t confuse them or use them interchangeably.

Hyphens [ - ] are shorter than dashes.

Dashes come in two sizes: the short en dash [ ] and the long em dash [ ]. An em dash is as wide as a capital M; the en dash is half that wide.


A hyphen [ - ] connects compound words and phrases.

The most common use of the hyphen is in phrasal adjectives. Phrasal adjectives are two or more words that together modify the noun that follows them. In other words, a phrase that works like an adjective.

Follow the easy-to-read instructions.

High-school students look forward to summer vacation.

Write a two- to three-page paper on the meaning of “hende.”

Professor Snow is an expert in seventeenth-century poetry.

Do not hyphenate phrases that follow the noun they modify.

The instructions are easy to read.

Students in high school look forward to summer vacation.

And never hyphenate phrasal adjective that begin with an –ly adverb.

Lisa’s pleasantly plump figure attracted plenty of attention.

The mob demanded justice from their newly crowned king.

The hyphens in phrasal adjectives can help clarify your meaning. For instance, ten dollar bills are worth a total of $10, but ten-dollar bills are worth $10 each.

En Dash

An en dash [ ] can indicate a range or an opposition. When used in a range, the en dash means “x to y”; when used in an opposition, it means “x versus y.”


During Shakespeare’s lifetime (15641616), England had two monarchs.

In lines 6066 Macbeth contemplates the enormity of his guilt.

The LondonRome flight arrived two hours late.


The Thrilla in Manila was the final AliFrazier match.

A conservativeliberal division defines much of American politics.

Ill-educated writers often place a slash [ / ] between opposing terms rather than an en dash — “the nature/nurture debate” instead of “the nature–nurture debate.” Now you know better.

Em Dash

An em dash [ ] signals a pause or interruption in the sentence. In pairs they can enclose supplemental material (like parentheses do) and alone they can introduce things: just like colons.


Johnson argues that our pop culture specifically video games and television shows has become more complex and cognitively demanding than we realize.

Vermeer’s The Milkmaid a masterpiece that uses lighting, composition, and color to create a deep sense of harmony and balance might initially seem like just a run-of-the-mill genre painting.

Hitchcock planned out every element that makes the shower scene in Psycho so effective quick cutting, expressionist camera angles, screeching background music before he ever started filming.


Most of the typical ingredients of Shakespearean comedy appear in The Taming of the Shrew witty wordplay, disguise, the double plot, meta-theater, even cross-dressing.

Your essay seems unfocused because it lacks a key element a clear thesis statement.

You can put spaces before and after the em dash — like this — or set them flush with the surrounding text—like this. I prefer spacing em dashes because doing so helps to distinguish them from hyphens and en dashes.

Typing Dashes

Typewriters had to simulate dashes with hyphens. Simulated dashes look clumsy and amateurish — whereas true en dashes and em dashes make your writing look polished and professional. So learn how your word processor works and start using real dashes.

Keyboard shortcuts for en dash [ – ]
Microsoft Word control + numeric hyphen
Mac OS X option + hyphen

Keyboard shortcuts for em dash [ — ]
Microsoft Word control + alt + numeric hyphen
Mac OS X option + shift + hyphen

You can set up most word processors to insert an em dash when you type two hyphens in a row, turning [ -- ] into [ ] automatically.

Page Last Updated: 24 August 2016