Punctuation—despite not being the favorite topic for us writers—actually makes quite the difference on the page. Don’t believe me? Well, in the first sentence, I used two em dashes, which changed the dynamic of the sentence and how it reads. The em dashes could have easily been replaced by either commas or parenthesis, but all three of these different forms of punctuation have separate purposes. The punctuation you choose can either deflate or empower your sentence, so it is essential to keep punctuation in mind while writing.
Today, let’s focus on the three different types of dashes—hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes—and how knowing the differences between them will better your writing.
First up is hyphens (-). This is probably the type of dash you are most familiar with. Typically, hyphens are used with compound adjectives. Compound adjectives are two or more words that when combined make up an adjective. When a compound adjective is used directly before a noun and modifies it, it will also be referred to as a compound modifier. Some examples include words like “long-term, off-campus, open-minded,” and “blue-eyed.” Here’s an example sentence with a compound adjective: “The well-known musician came into town today.” Another example, with a longer compound adjective, is the sentence, “The two-year-old child cried throughout the day.” In this example, the compound adjective “the two-year-old” combines three different words. Technically, there is no limit to the length of a compound adjective, but shorter compound adjectives are more common.
However, if the adjectives follow the noun instead of preceding it, then hyphens are not used. For example, “Their food is well known.” This sentence does not need a hyphen. In the earlier example, “The well-known musician came into town today,” the hyphen was needed between the two words “well” and “known” because it precedes and modifies the noun “musician.” In the sentence, “Their food is well known,” because the compound adjective follow the noun, the hyphens are not needed. Although, some hyphenated words always use hyphens regardless of their position in a sentence, such as “off-roading” and “state-of-the-art,” so you may want to double-check when you use them.
Of the three dashes, the en dash is likely the type you will encounter the least often. En dashes (–) are slightly longer than hyphens, and approximately the same length as the letter “N,” hence the name. En dashes are used to show range. For example, “June–July” and “Chapter 1–Chapter 6.” In these examples, the en dash takes the place of the preposition “to.” So, basically, en dashes show the range of items instead of connecting them into a common idea like hyphens. There are a few more obscure uses for en dashes, but none that warrant discussing unless you follow a very strict style guide; nevertheless, for more information, see the Chicago Manual of Style.
The last of the dashes—em dashes—are frequently used, especially in fiction. The last sentence actually used two. Em dashes (—) are so named because the dash takes up the approximate space of the letter “M.” Em dashes are typically used to break up an additional thought from the main sentence. Most phrases that use em dashes can also use commas or parenthesis in place of them; this all depends on the writer’s style. However, most agree that commas are more formal, and parenthesis imply that the addition is more of an after-thought and/or is less important. On the other hand, em dashes are somewhere between commas and parenthesis—more casual than commas, but the additional information enclosed by the en dashes is more essential to know than material enclosed in parentheses. Also, em dashes give you much more variety when writing these additional thoughts. You may not always want to use commas in a sentence, especially when the additional information enclosed already uses multiple commas. An example of this circumstance is seen in the following sentence: “The three types of fruit at the party—cherries, blueberries, and watermelon—were delicious.” The sentence may be confusing if the commas were used in place of the em dashes because the commas that enclose the additional thought and the commas in the list would intermix. Em dashes remove this potential reader confusion.
Em dashes have another important function, which you would notice if you opened practically any novel. In fiction, em dashes are used to show interruption in dialogue. For example, in the situation of two characters arguing, one may cut in before the other finishes speaking. This can be demonstrated by using em dashes as punctuation at the end as shown in the example below.
“If you would just listen to me—”
“I’m done hearing your excuses!”
In this above example, Character A is interrupted by Character B, and the em dash perfectly shows this. Most people don’t wait for another to finish talking before they speak. Even in friendly conversations, people cut in or finish another person’s sentence. We want fiction to mirror real life conversation, so it is of course essential to have these interruptions also noted on paper. Luckily, em dashes are at the writer’s disposal!
Those were not exhaustive explanations or lists, but those are the most important ways to use the three types of dashes. Remember, hyphens are used to connect related words, en dashes are used to show range, and em dashes are used with additional ideas and interruptions in fiction. All three of those dashes are important to learn because they can improve your clarity, flow, and grammatical correctness. The tiniest bit of punctuation can make all the difference in your writing. By mastering the three dashes, your next writing project will be a step above your last.