Hyphen vs. en dash vs. em dash

Sometimes Word or our writing application will automatically correct our use of a hypen, en dash, or em dash. However, it is not always correct in making these corrections, and it is important to know the difference between the three.

When to use a hyphen (-)

A hyphen is always used within a word or compound word. The hyphen key is located on most keyboards before the +/= key and after the 0 key on the top row. It can be correctly used in the following ways:

  • When joining words that serve as an adjective when combined, only if preceding the noun

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
The author is well known

  • Compound numbers

thirty-six
twenty-four

  • To avoid confusion

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

  • Or in the following situations

ex-husband
self-assured
mid-September
all-inclusive
mayor-elect
anti-American
T-shirt
pre-Civil War
mid-1980s

According to Purdue Online Writing Lab, you may also use hyphens to break words into multiple lines. However, this should be avoided in order to increase readability.

When to use an en dash (–)

An en dash is usually the width of the letter n. To use an em dash on a PC, hold down ALT and then type 0150. On a Mac, press Option + -

It is used in the following situations:

  • In periods of time, to replace to.

The years 2001–2003 (not 2001-2003)
January–March (not January-March)

  • When combining open compounds

North Carolina–Virginia border

When to use an em dash (—)

An em dash is usually the width of the letter m. To use an em dash on a PC, hold down ALT and then type 0151. On a Mac, press Shift + Option + -

It is used to break up a sentence, usually replacing commas or parentheses. For example:

Please call my agent—Jessica Cohen—about hiring me.
I wish you would—oh, never mind. 

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