Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Difference Between an Em Dash, an En Dash & a Hyphen

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

WARNING! Grammar nerd content ahead.

Today I'm sharing the answer to one of my personal pet peeves—the incorrect use of punctuation. But instead of a rant, I'm going to equip you to do this correctly!

I run into this issue with writers all the time—even with experienced writers. So today I’m going to give you the grammar short course and you’ll be an expert on the differences and know the best choice for every writing situation. 

You may ask why it matters, but the fact is we want to be accurate when we communicate through the written word. And each of these punctuation marks carries a different meaning. 

What’s the Difference?

1. A Hyphen (incorrectly referred to as a dash)

This is the shortest of the three. A hyphen is used between words or parts of words. This isn’t interchangeable with the other two types of dashes. The following are several times when a hyphen is used, but it’s not an all-inclusive list. 

Hyphenate compound words: 
  • daughter-in-law
  • three-year-old
  • six-pack
Hyphenate compound modifiers that work together as a single adjective:
  • We need a baby-friendly restaurant.
But don’t hyphenate words if the noun comes first:
  • Is that restaurant baby friendly?
Hyphenate numbers

Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine should hyphenated when they’re spelled out.
  • There are twenty-seven teenagers in the youth group.
Hyphenate numbers that are the first part of a compound adjective, whether they a numerals or spelled out:
  • My recent social media class was 60-minutes long.
  • My son loves thirteenth-century insults.
Don’t hyphenate numbers if the number is the second part of the phrase:
  • There isn’t an exit 3 on that highway.
Hyphenate words with the prefixes ALL-, Ex-, Self-
  • That is her ex-husband.
  • The dog chewing on the bone looked self-satisfied.
2. An En Dash

This is longer in length than a hyphen. It is used to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time. I remember it because it really is a replacement for either the words through or to.

  • The party was from 5:00pm–7:30pm.
  • I read pages 25–101 in my English book. 
3. An Em Dash

An em dash is the longest of these three. I remember them by knowing that the letter N is shorter than the letter M.

An em dash is used in similar circumstances to a colon, but is less formal and generates stronger emotion. It also can replace a parenthetical phrase.

  • Awkward: Susan loved three things: fall, coffee, and walking in the rain.
  • Better: Susan loved three things—fall, coffee, and walking in the rain.
  • Awkward: After waiting several seconds, the speaker continued (choosing to ignore the rude interruption).
  • Better: After waiting several seconds, the speaker continued—choosing to ignore the rude interruption.
How do I make them on 
my keyboard?

En Dash

To insert an EN DASH when typing on a Mac or a PC, type in this order:
  • the word
  • space 
  • single hyphen
  • space
  • the next word
  • space 
After the last space, the hyphen will change to an EN DASH. Depending on whether you are following the AP Style guide (leave the spaces in before and after the finished en dash) or the Chicago Manual of Style (take the extra spaces out before and after the finished en dash) you will need to make your finished product CONSISTENT!

Em Dash

To insert an Em Dash when typing on a Mac or a PC, type in this order:
  • the word 
  • NO space 
  • two hyphens without any spaces between them
  • NO space
  • the next word
  • space
After the last space, the hyphen will change to an Em Dash.

NOTE: When tweeting or texting, all these rules go out the window. Those two forms are very casual ways of communicating and I've given up with being a grammar snob there. 

Bottom Line:

This is a crash course in how to correctly use these three punctuation marks. What questions do you have about when to use them or how to create them on your computer? Leave your comments below.

Don't forget to join the conversation!
Edie Melson


Edie Melson is a woman of faith with ink-stained fingers observing life through the lens of her camera. No matter whether she’s talking to writers, entrepreneurs, or readers, her first advice is always “Find your voice, live your story.” As an author, blogger, and speaker she’s encouraged and challenged audiences across the country and around the world. Her numerous books reflect her passion to help others develop the strength of their God-given gifts and apply them to their lives. Connect with her on her WEBSITE, through FACEBOOK, TWITTER and on INSTAGRAM.


  1. Wonderful guidance, but my question remains dear friend. Should we follow the AP Style Guide and include spaces before and after an en or em dash, or apply the others. I made a career out of using CMOS and always struggle forgetting those rules. LOL Honestly, I think it's editor-dependent. God's blessings.

    1. I think the most important thing is being consistent and knowing which style guide your editor uses!

  2. Thank you for this helpful explanation. Please could you share the difference between the Em dash and ellipsis? I think I might be using one where I should employ the other. P.S. Your posts are wonderful! Grateful for the lessons.

    1. Rebecca, great question! An em dash is used to add information, an ellipsis is used when omitting information.

  3. I love em dashes in fiction and use them a lot. They are wonderful for pacing, too.

    1. Ane, I love them in EVERYTHING! And my editor always has to rein me in LOL!

  4. So helpful, Edie. Thank you for this information. I learn so much from all of you from these blogs!

  5. I think this is the first time I ever fully understood them and how to make them. Took note, Thanks!!

  6. Thanks Edie for sharing this sometimes uncertain info

  7. It is so easy to forget which to use and how to do it. Thanks for the lesson.

  8. Great and easy to understand info. Thanks, Edie!

  9. Love the short, succinct, excellent definition of em dash vs. ellipsis! You rock!

  10. Thanks Edie! Great advice! I always use the insert symbol for my EM dashes. Who knew it was so simple, lol? :)

  11. Wonderful and helpful! Thank you!

  12. Thank you! I've needed this before and searched for your blog post when I need it today. :)

  13. Thank you for clearing up my confusion. I printed this one and saved it in my laptop.