Learning to use hyphens, em and en dashes

I love, love, love punctuation. Wait, don’t leave! You might learn something cool.

While I was studying for Start Fiction Editing , the only punctuation I had a nightmare with in our exercises were em and en dashes. Sophie Playle, the patient dear, got me caught up with these two as I am shocked to say this didn’t really come up in my schooling or my love affair with the English language.

I know I’m not the only one who had difficulty with this similar pieces of punctuation so decided to write a post about them. I intend to make ‘Learning to…’ a series, where I impart my newly acquired knowledge about anything literary. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re always learning, why not learn together?

For your clarity, I am referring to the New Hart’s Rules to explain the difference between these three pieces of punctuation. This is the preferred style manual from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), and it is important to note that there will be differences in opinions from other manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style . This is one of the things I found immensely irritating, I would love for there to be an universal rule but that just ain’t the case, and I probably need to get over it.

The hyphen

You’re probably feel like you’re all cool with the hyphen. This is the one that usually causes us less trouble but is often misunderstood so is a great place to start—let’s see the hyphen as the laid-back, easy-going friend.

Hyphens like to bring words together, as a cool friend would. It’s their way of showing that words are connected. There are three main ways you can use our friend, the hyphen.

  1. in compound words
  2. to join prefixes to words
  3. to show word breaks.

Compound words

You use hyphens in compound words to show that component words have a meaning that is combined or that there is a relationship between the words of the compound. Have a look at these examples:

Component words with combined meaning

compound words

Compound relationships

relationship betwen the words that make the compound

Compound adjectives

Compound adjectives are made up of a noun and an adjective, a noun and a participle, or an adjective and a participle. Many of these should  be hyphenated. Look at the following examples:

Compound adjectives

However, it is is important to remember that you use a hyphen when the compound comes before the noun:

well-known artist 

but not when the compound comes after the noun:

the artist was well known

You should use hyphens in compound adjectives that describe ages and lengths of time as leaving them out can make your meaning ambiguous. For example, 12-month-old babies clearly refers to babies that are 12 months old, while 12 month old babies could being referring to 12 babies who are a month old.

Compound nouns

compound nouns

The problem with our friend, the hyphen, is that she is so laid-back, she is becoming less used within compound nouns. There is a tendency nowadays to write either as one word or two separate words. To make matters worse, Oxford dictionaries highlights this tendency to avoid hyphenation for noun compounds. For example, they specify airstream rather than air-stream and air raid rather than air-raid. What matters more is good old consistency – choose one style and stick with it.

Joining prefixes

Using hyphen to join prefixes to another word is becoming less common and instead they are written as one word, especially in US English. However, using a hyphen can be useful to avoid confusion or mispronunciation, especially if the prefix ends in a vowel and the other word begins with one such as co-own or pre-existing.

However, as with most areas of the English language, there is no hard and fast rule; you will would write cooperate and coordinate despite the conflict of os . How bloody frustrating!

You should also use a hyphen to avoid confusion where a prefix is repeated as in the case of re-release or when to avoid confusion with another word, for example, re-cover (when you mean to cover again not to recuperate).

Showing word breaks

Finally, you can use hyphens to divide words that aren’t usually hyphenated.  Here, you use a hyphen to show where a word has been divided at the end of a line of writing. This should be in a sensible place.

cat-apult not catap-ult, frac-tions not fr-actions

So you see, hyphens are so damn laid-back they can’t even keep the rules in order. As mentioned before the best way of dealing with them is consistency and if you’re really stuck, consult your style manual. The Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors  is also useful as it tells you which words should be written as one word, two words or hyphenated. God bless those in Oxford.

The en dash/rule

The en dash (US) or en rule (UK) is longer than a hyphen and half the length of em rule. Cool fact I learned while researching this post: The en dash is the width of a capital N and the em dash is the width of a capital M. Well, I thought it was cool.

You use the closed up en dash when connecting ranges and it replaces the word to or and in those ranges. You may have children aged between 3–16 or need to look up textbook pages 8–32 or work from Monday–Thursday or use the Dover–Calais crossing. You get the drift.

It can also be used to express an alternative such as on–off relationship.

New Hart’s Rules also suggests that spaced en rules may be used to indicate individual missing letters:

‘En rules can f– – – off!’ but asterisks can also be used for this purpose.

In Word, you can use the AutoFormat feature to create an en dash using hyphens.

To insert an en dash using AutoFormat type a single hyphen between two words. For example, typing:
en dash step 1

converts the line to:
en dash step 2

You can also insert an em dash manually by clicking Insert in the menu bar of an open Microsoft Word document and clicking Symbol. The unicode for en dash is U+2013.

So, if you have to format your word documents to use a en dash, how in literary hell do you use it on the web?! I can tell you because I looked it up and everything. When typing a blog post in WordPress, make sure you are typing in the Text screen where you can see all the crazy HTML shizzle not the Visual screen where it looks all pretty. For the HTML symbol, you should type the following: –  You end up with this: –

The em dash/rule

The em dash (US) or em rule (UK) is twice the length of an en rule.

This dash should be used to express a pronounced break in sentence structure more than pronounced than a comma and way of garnering more attention than brackets.

Since the recession, a consensus of the economic establishment—bankers, policymakers, economists, stock analyst, pundits—has been difficult to obtain.

In written dialogue, a closed up em rule can be used to indicate interruption in the same way an ellipsis indicates someone trailing off:

‘You didn’t actually—?’

‘They would never have been able to hit it at this dis—’

‘Honestly, why don’t you just sh—’

To insert an em dash using AutoFormat type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphen. For example, typing:

em dash step 1
converts the line to:

em dash step 2

You can also insert an em dash manually by clicking Insert in the menu bar of an open Microsoft Word document and clicking Symbol. The unicode for en dash is U+2014.

As before, to use HTML symbol in WordPress make sure you’re typing in the Text screen. The symbol entity is similar to the en dash and can be obtained by typing: —  leaving you with this: —

Why you should care

I mean, look how similar they are!

Hyphen, en dash, em dash

Just knowing all this can completely change your writing. Using a hyphen instead of an en dash make you look like an incompetent writing (it’s okay, I’ve done it plenty of times). Using too many em dashing can ruin the narrative flow of of the story you writing.

Have you had difficulties with these pieces of punctuation before? Have you got any great examples of them in sentences?