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Understanding Dashes and Hyphens

Do you know the difference between a dash and a hyphen? Do you recognize where to use en dashes and em dashes?

If you do, then pass this post on to someone else. Or read it to be sure of your knowledge.

In business writing classes, people regularly call hyphens “dashes.” They will ask, “Does follow up need a dash?” No, follow up never needs a dash. It needs a hyphen—sometimes (when it’s an adjective or a noun).

Below you will find the essentials of hyphens and dashes.


The hyphen is the baby; the en dash, the big brother or sister; and the em dash, the parent. The en dash is the size of a letter n. The em dash is the size of the letter m. Thus, their names.

Explanation and examples of hyphen, en dash and em dash

How to Type It

Hyphen: Just type the hyphen key on your keyboard.

En dash: Insert the en dash as a symbol. In Microsoft Office, click Insert, then Symbol, then the en dash. Or use a shortcut: Click (and hold) CTRL and the minus sign in the numeric keypad.

Reader Paul Kelly noted another easy way to insert an en dash in Microsoft Office: Type a space, a hyphen, a space, and then another word. Your hyphen will change to an en dash (unless you have changed the default settings). If you do not want the spaces, you will need to delete them manually.

Em dash: Type two hyphens, and your software will likely convert them to an em dash. Otherwise, in Microsoft Office, click Insert, then Symbol, then the em dash. Or use a shortcut: Click (and hold) ALT, CTRL and the minus sign in the keypad.

Spacing with en dashes and em dashes: Do not space before or after hyphens and en dashes. Use a space before and after the em dash if you follow The Associated Press Stylebook. Garner’s Modern English Usage recommends that you “consider putting a letter space before and after an em-dash.” 

Graphic illustrating the usage of hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes.

How to Use It 

Hyphen: Use it to connect.

Use a hyphen to connect two or more words to make a compound word. Examples:

decision-making skills (In this phrase you are not referring to decision skills or making skills. The hyphen tells readers to connect the two words. It helps them instantly understand your meaning.)

two-day programs (These are not two programs or day programs. The hyphen tells readers to connect the two words for a new idea.)

a scaled-down proposal (This isn’t actually a scaled proposal or a down proposal. The hyphen connects the two words to make the meaning “scaled-down” clear.)

She is a know-it-all. (She isn’t a know, an it, or an all. The words must be connected to make sense.)

Expressions such as decision-making and scaled-down do not need hyphens when they come after the word they describe. The hyphens are not necessary to make the meaning clear. “Your skills in decision making” and “The proposal has been scaled down” make perfect sense.

Expressions often evolve from hyphenated to closed (that is, one word) as readers become familiar with them. Micro-wave is now microwave. No one looks at microwave and thinks of a crow. Email has lost its hyphen in some style guides because we no longer need the hyphen to recognize the word immediately. Because of these gradual changes, it’s essential to check a current style manual or dictionary to determine whether your expression needs a hyphen. (I used Merriam-Webster’s when I reviewed this post, and I learned that the compound first-rate is always hyphenated.)

Also use hyphens to connect these kinds of expressions:

  • Spelled out compound numbers between 21 and 99: forty-seven, sixty-one, ninety-nine.
  • Combined titles: secretary-treasurer, singer-songwriter, actor-producer.
  • Fractions: one-half, two-thirds, three-fourths.
  • Certain prefixes (check your style guide): co-owner, self-help, mid-January, great-aunt.

Insert a hyphen to tell readers to connect the end of one line with the beginning of the next line for word division, like this:

Punctuation for Professionals covers
commas, semicolons, colons, apostro
phes, dashes, hyphens, quotation
marks, italics, and periods.

To make your text look appealing, avoid using a hyphen at the end of the first line of text and the last full line. Also, try not to end two consecutive lines with hyphens.

En dash: Use it to replace the word to (or through) in a range.

When you use the en dash for the word to, do not use the word from before the expression. For example,

incorrect: “from 9 a.m.-5” and “from $600-$725.”

If you want to use the word from, use to rather than the en dash:

correct: “from 9 a.m. to 5” and “from $600 to $725.”

For informal communication, you will typically use a hyphen rather than an en dash because the hyphen is faster to type. However, in brochures, conference programs, annual reports, and other important pieces, take the time to get it right—use the en dash.

Note: The Associated Press style does not use en dashes. It uses hyphens for the situations above.

Em dash: Use it for a strong break. 

Use the em dash to create an emphatic break between the parts of your sentence. Examples:

David—not Dawn—wrote the press release.
The food is spicy—extremely spicy.
His daughter—she is all he lives for.
The pricing—especially the volume discounts—sold me on the proposal.

Use em dashes to set off a series in the middle of a sentence.

Van’s order—the glasses, cups, and silverware—will be delivered today.
All our products—books, journals, and calendars—are on sale this week.

Also use em dashes—sparingly—to break a compound sentence in an energetic way. This use replaces a comma and a conjunction, a period, or a semicolon. Examples:

I’m excited about my new job—it’s everything I wanted!
Atul is the strongest person on the team—and you know it.
Prepare now—winter storms will soon hit our region.

Master the rules of punctuation. Take our online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals.

We used these sources for the information above: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Garner’s Modern English Usage. (Mr. Garner hyphenates em dash and en dash, but the other guides do not.)

Do you have rules or examples to add? Please do!

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Understanding Dashes and Hyphens”

  • Hi Lynn, another interesting post! I can’t say I had spotted the subtle differences of the two dashes; I guess, like most people, I use a hyphen where an en dash would be more appropriate, and an en dash where a em dash should be used.

    Tip: There’s an easier way of inserting en dashes in Microsoft Word, assuming you follow AP rules: type a space, a hyphen and another space between two words, and Word will change the hyphen to an en dash for you.

    This conversion feature is enabled by default, but you can turn it off in Word’s settings, if you wish.

  • Hi George,

    I believe you are justified in worrying about how a symbol may appear online. I recommend using a hyphen where an en dash belongs, and a two-hyphen em dash (–) for the em dash. To me, a hyphen simply looks wrong where an em dash belongs.

    Confession: After trying hard to create an en dash using HTML in this blog post, I gave up and used screen shots (pictures from Word docs) for my en dash examples above.

    I am glad you liked the post.


  • Martha, thanks for the compliment. You got me to wonder about “super-helpful.” “The Chicago Manual of Style” recommends closing up compounds with “super” (“superhelpful”), but I like the energy of your version too.


  • Very helpful article! I tried typing en and em dashes in email but it doesn’t seem to work. Is there a way to type them in Google mail?

  • Hi Lynn,I am saswat from India,Here I am a fashion Merchandiser,Please help me to write a extension mail due to delay in shipment & to put request for extra days for delivery.There are so many reasons & cases to put,But need proper guidance .I had read your first chapter of the book”Business writing”,But I was not able to find any Extension request related mail writing.

  • Hi Lyn,

    Isn’t it also correct to write a sentence with a hyphen when you are referring but not mentioning the same thing, i.e

    I will become a provider of residential-, aged- and home care.

    To then show that it is all “care” providers?

  • Hi Bron,

    Your example does not use hyphens correctly. There is no need for them. However, it would be correct this way:

    “I will become a provider of residential-, aged-, and home-care services.”

    The suspended hyphens allow a more concise version of this sentence:

    “I will become a provider of residential-care, aged-care, and home-care services.”

    The word “services” is required because without it there is no need for the commas, as in your original sentence.


  • Hi Lynn,

    I have seen em dashes used at the end of written conversation where the speaker is interrupted. Here’s an example:

    Bill said, “I thought you were–”
    “Going to my mother’s?” Jill interrupted.

    (My cell phone didn’t join the 2 hyphens into 1 like Word does. That should be an em dash.)

    Is this a correct usage of the em dash?

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