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How to use hyphens and dashes in your writing

Posted on July 8, 2021 (updated on April 13, 2023)

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Free printable hyphens and dashes checklist

What do hyphens and dashes look like?

  • this is a hyphen -

  • this is an en dash –

  • this is an em dash —

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

What does a hyphen do?

The 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.

What does a dash do?

The 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 (—).

What does an en dash do?

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)

What does an em dash do?

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)​

When not to use dashes

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.

Excellent turnaround time ...

“Great service, excellent turnaround time; very professional.”​

—Kerissa Nelson, PhD student

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