#amwriting: em dash; en dash; hyphen

Book- onstruction-sign copyAn em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m’, hence the name. An em dash serves as a comma, does the same task as parentheses, and also does the work of the colon. Used in these situations, the em dash creates a slightly less formal effect and is a useful tool in the author’s arsenal.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

  • A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

They can be more emphatic than a comma, and will really set apart any clause bracketed by them. In dialogue, we don’t use semicolons to join short related independent clauses. Instead, we use em dashes. Used sparingly, and not in every paragraph, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding.

Unfortunately, I have a tendency to use them far too frequently, and in my hands, they lose their effectiveness. When combing a final ms for bloopers, I find them sprinkled through my work, maniacally creating run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

The en dash (–) is the width of an ‘n’, hence the name. It denotes a span or range of numbers, dates, or time. Depending on the context, the en dash signifies “to” or “through.” When keying, type a space between the en dash and the adjacent material and then hit the spacebar.

To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

  • 1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

Hyphens join certain compound words. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective is easily understood without a hyphen or its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building

Some compounds are created on the spot to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds began as improvised compounds but became so widely accepted they are now included in the dictionary as permanent compounds.

Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are:

  • know-it-all
  • heart-stopping
  • free-for-all
  • down-at-the-heel

Context determines whether or not to hyphenate.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?”

Wikipedia offers the following examples:

Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)

Wild-goose chase (as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a goose chase that is wild)

Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)

Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which could be interpreted as there being no liability protection).

Overuse of em dashes and hyphens is a characteristic of lazy writing habits. We are in a hurry to get the story down, and we use the em dash to connect clauses that would be better if left to stand alone, and we hyphenate compound words that don’t require a hyphen.

I see these habits in my work and am forcing myself to be more creative. The em dash has a proper place in my work, but it can work its way into every paragraph. It is like an exclamation point. If I want my em dash to really emphasize a point, I have to only use it when nothing else will have the desired effect.

Only by seeing our work through a critical eye can we grow as authors. By writing every day and striving for growth, the quality of our work improves. Our beta readers will notice this growth and thank us for it.


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11 responses to “#amwriting: em dash; en dash; hyphen

  1. Stephen Swartz

    Sometimes you need the long sword, sometimes the short sword will do. In a pinch always have a dagger close at hand.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. David P. Cantrell

    Thank you, Connie. You answered my question about em dashes vs. semicolons superbly. Note–I left the hyphen out of semicolon this time where as I usually insert one in it. Merriam-Webster doesn’t show the hyphen as an alternative these days.


  3. Groan… I do so love my Em dashes it’s painful having to reduce them, but I’m getting better at it. Slowly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • High-five, sister! I had no idea they were a gateway punctuation, lol! Once you start using them, you can’t stop, and soon you move on to abusing hard-core punctuation, like ellipses and exclamation points.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol, I’ve managed to avoid ellipses, but learning about NOT using exclamation points has been hard.
        Back when I grew up they were an acceptable tool for emphasis! When did we become so ‘sophisticated’ we no longer need them?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I so agree, Deborah. However, we must evolve with our readers or be left behind. Some highly respected voices in the industry say we don’t need them at all, but I respectfully disagree with them. I do agree that when we write compelling narratives we rarely need to use them. However, the key word is “rarely.” Certain arguments, such as name calling– “Bastard!” –require strong punctuation inserted into the dialogue, which allows the author to dispense with a dialogue tag. “Bastard,” he shouted, doesn’t have quite the impact. One or two exclamation points will be all that is needed to drive home the point. That is only my opinion, and I admit it is an uneducated one, but as a reader this how I feel.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Really good stuff to know. I find your editing information reliably accurate, well described, and easy to put to use. thank you.

    Liked by 1 person