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Are You Using English Hyphens Correctly?

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes

Hyphens and Dashes. A hyphen joins two or more words together while a dash separates words into parenthetical statements. The two are sometimes confused because they look so similar, but their usage is different.

Hyphens are not separated by spaces, while a dash has a space on either side.

While they look similar in print or on your webpage, a savvy writer knows the difference, which is surprisingly easy to master:

  • A hyphen joins compound adjectives before a noun:

  • “His sister is a fifth-grade tutor.”

  • An en dash joins members of a range:

  • “The season pass covers the 2018–2019 season.”

  • An em dash dramatically separates essential and nonessential information or separates related clauses like a colon:

  • “We visited the big tourist spots in London—such as Big Ben and the Buckingham Palace—and had the best time.”

It's time to take a closer look into the world of hyphens. As a new freelance writer, you've probably written zero assignments or major projects for businesses.

More notably, your written samples could use some help, too!

Here's a more in-depth look into hyphens, for those of us that aren't as savvy.


Much like their distant cousins, the colon and semicolon, dashes can be intimidating even to writers who have a good grasp of grammar. Primarily, they act as connectors of words and phrases within a sentence.

The hyphen, en dash and em dash are different lengths, and only the hyphen can be found on your computer keyboard, right next to the zero. The other two are slightly wider and require fancy keystrokes on your PC, like Ctrl+Num Lock – to get the en dash and Alt+Ctrl+Num Lock – for the em dash, both using the numerical keypad.

Before we get into usage, here’s how each one looks: ­­­

Hyphen: ‐

En Dash: –

Em Dash: —


The Hyphen

The smallest of the three symbols, it’s arguably the toughest to master, but at its simplest, the hyphen is most often used to connect compound adjectives—two words modifying the same word—in front of a noun.

For example:

  • Last weekend, I spent an afternoon babysitting my 3-year-old niece.

  • The magazine only uses high-quality photos in its pages.

When compound adjectives follow the noun, the hyphen is not used.

  • Last weekend, I spent an afternoon babysitting my niece, who is 3 years old.

  • The magazine uses photos that are high quality.

Sometimes, you’ll come across suspended compound adjectives where one or more of the words that modify are separated.

  • We are looking for a four- or five-bedroom house.

Other places you’ll find a hyphen are in prefixes such as mid- and ex- or when it’s used to break up syllables in a pronunciation guide.

The En Dash

It’s entirely possible you’ve never heard of this particular dash.

Often, it’s substituted with a hyphen, but in traditional typography, the en dash is slightly wider than the hyphen. Its purpose is to connect ranges.

  • The theater is going to begin its 2017–2018 season with a Neil Simon play.

  • The rainy months in this climate are July–September.

It is also used between times (10 a.m.–2 p.m.), directions (east–west), and sports scores (15–27).

There is an exception if you are using “from” with “to” and “between” with “and.” Do not use an en dash in that case.

  • They organized all the files, from A to Z.

  • My high school years lasted between 2001 and 2005.

The Em Dash

The biggest of the three, the em dash can be overused in part because — much like a small child — it often interrupts the flow of a sentence (See? That aside was accurate yet unnecessary).

The em dash can take the place of a pair of commas or parentheses to set off nonessential information, or like a colon, it can appear between two related phrases.

  • After putting peanut butter on the bread, he realized a hard truth — he was out of jelly.

In AP style, always put a space before and after an em dash. Because an em dash is so dramatic, it should be limited to no more than two instances per sentence. The em dash shouldn’t be used in very many sentences in an article, or it loses its intensity.

Image from

With much optimism, I'm think you're a bit more ready to tackle that next remote writing project—with hyphenated confidence!


Can you spot the errors in this article where spaces should not be?


RWJ Contributing Author, Mel the Writer, is a freelancer, retro fashion enthusiast, old school video gamer, techie, and the world's most wanted volunteer cello teacher.

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