How to use hyphens and dashes

Including your free printable hyphens and dashes checklist (PDF)

Although hyphens and dashes look similar, they have very different functions.

This is a hyphen -

This is an en dash –

This is an em dash —

What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

A hyphen is a punctuation mark that joins words (or parts of words) together. Hyphens are not interchangeable with dashes. There should be no spaces before or after a hyphen.

Hyphens are used:

  • in written numbers: e.g. thirty-three, twenty-one

  • in written fractions: e.g. two-thirds, three-fifths

  • in compound modifiers: e.g. left-handed player, child-friendly restaurant, five-year-old girl

  • in compound nouns: e.g. father-in-law, great-grandson, second-guess, double-cross

Note: a compound modifier is two or more words that are joined together to describe the noun that follows. A compound noun is a noun that combines two or more words.

A dash is a punctuation mark that is commonly used to show elements in a range, emphasise

a phrase or indicate a non-essential phrase in a sentence. There are two kinds of dashes:

en dashes (–) and em dashes (—).

En dashes are used:

  • to link numbers in a range (closed up): e.g. 1995–2002, Monday–Friday, 9.00–5.30

  • between words that have equal weight: e.g. Dover–Calais crossing, New York–London flight

  • instead of a colon to emphasise a phrase (spaced): e.g. There was only one thing she could do – run (more common in UK style)

  • instead of parentheses to indicate a non-essential phrase (spaced): e.g. Her car – a red Ford Focus – was parked on the drive (more common in UK style)

Em dashes are used:

  • for sentence interruptions in fiction (closed up): e.g. 'Why did you—?'

  • instead of a colon to emphasise a phrase (closed up): e.g. There was only one thing she could do—run (more common in US style)

  • instead of parentheses to indicate a non-essential phrase (closed up): e.g. Her car—a red Ford Focus—was parked on the drive (more common in US style)

Note: dashes are considered to be informal punctuation, so if you are writing for business or education, use formal punctuation when emphasising a phrase or indicating a non-essential phrase in a sentence.

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