When to use: Hyphen, Em & En Dashes

Today’s little grammar hint and tip comes from a frequently asked grammar question that we regularly see come up on the writing forum: When do I use a hyphen vs. and em or en dash? Or better yet: What the heck is an em or en dash?

Never fear, I’ll answer both of those questions briefly in this blog post!


What is an EM dash? An EM dash is the most common ‘dash’, and it’s used in punctuating sentences. It’s your double hyphen in Word and you can use it for parenthetical phrases, interrupting a sentences or dialogue, etc.

Example (from my short synopsis of my novel, What Brothers Do):

Jacqueline–the only woman to ever captivate the stoic Brent’s heart–at first appears uninjured.

In this instance, you see that the part inside the em dashes is an aside, important information, but not necessary for that sentence to make sense, as well as not truly being a part of the sentence. A parenthetical aside, using parentheses, is more for interjecting personal opinion related to the sentence, while the dash set off, well, that’s more for interjecting something that you want the reader to know but that might not directly relate to the sentence.


What is an EN dash? An EN dash is used in between ranges of things.


We’ll be gone November 12-17th.


Bring me two-three dozen (2-3 dozen).


A hyphen is used for things like hyphenating words at the end of a line of text on a page that wraps around to another line. This is primarily to stop one of two things: in old fashioned typewriting, it’s stops there being a large empty white spot at the end of a sentence when a word is very long, making the ragged right edge slightly more even; for word processing using a justified text (full justification), it stops what is known as the ‘white river’. The ‘white river’ in a text that is justified can be seen when you scroll quickly through a document, much like a river twists and turns through the landscape, the white ‘space’ in the middle of words that full justification makes can be unpleasing to the eye. Using hyphens to hyphenate words at the end of a line of text can help reduce the space between words when using full justification, and it helps eliminate the white river. This is particularly important for authors who are self publishing and having to format their own books.

We don’t hyphenate nearly as much as we once did for those purposes, but we do still hyphenate some word. For example, some names are hyphenated, and then there are phrases where two words together make a hyphenated adjective to a noun:


like-minded people, full-time job

We also us hyphens for dashes between phone numbers, separating zip codes from their four-digit code at the end, separating digits in some numbers (social, ein, etc).

So there you have it – simple, easy as pie, how to use hyphens, and dashes.

Write on!

Love and stuff,