Proofread Along with Rhube #4: em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens

The three dashes.

A screencap from Word, because WordPress doesn’t believe in differentiating dashes.

If you’re anything like I was, you learned everything you know about these babies from reading, and you just think of all of these things as ‘dashes’. When you write stories or papers and you want to use a dash, you just type ‘ – ‘ and let Word either change it to a longer or a shorter dash as it wills, and occasionally wonder what kind of arcane mysteries govern its decisions. You may also have seen some people type ‘- -‘ and either not known why they were doing that, or assumed that they were privy to some mystery of Proper Writing that is lost on you.

So, here it is, I’m gonna let you in on the arcane mysteries. Like so many things, it turns out they’re pretty mundane. But you can’t know this until someone tells you.


First up, let’s get the low-down on what terms apply to what. We’ll do this in size order (which will be a little frustrating, as Word Press only believes in one size of dash, but bear with me.)

Hyphens: ‘Smith-Jones’, ‘non-fat’, ‘well-adjusted’, ‘pp. 37-40’

Hyphens are the smallest of the dash family. Their purpose is to join two words or to suggest a very close relation between the two, whilst preserving some sense of distance. There are a host of rules of usage (some disputed), but for now, just get a hold of the kind of thing we mean – the smallest dash, used to join two or more words in a relationship closer than they would have separately.

En-dashes: ‘Jensen – for that was his name – yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know – you see… I give up,’, ‘pp. 37-40’, ‘mind-body distinction’

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joinging words.

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joining words.

These are represented as longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em-dash, and are usually presented with a space on either side. Their role is chiefly parenthetical, or used to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. However, they are also sometimes used in page ranges (e.g. ‘pp. 37-40’), instead of a hyphen, and they can be used to join two words in a way that indicates tension and opposition. So, if I were engaging with the philosophical debate about whether the mental and the physical are two distinct substances, I would use an en-dash for writing about ‘the mind-body distinction’, in contrast to talking about ‘mind-body identity’, where I would use a hyphen . This is one of those niceties of grammar that is rarely engaged with online, as many platforms, like Word Press, do not make it possible to visually indicate the difference between tension and association, and it can be easily worked out from context. If I’m proofreading an academic article, though, this is one of the things I look out for.

Em-dashes: ‘Jensen-for that was his name-yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know-you see… I give up,’

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Unfortunately, the length of the dash really is important when you get to em-dashes. An em-dash is the longest of the dashes, and is used to mark parenthetical statements and breaks in conventional punctuation. It is presented without a space on either side, which makes it look a bit strange if the programme you’re using doesn’t believe in distinguishing dashes by length. This is why you’ll see some people writing ‘- -‘ when they mean to use an em-dash. It used to be standard manuscript format to use two dashes to represent an em-dash, which is a hold-over from typewriters. Typewriters typically did not have distinct keys for the type of dash to be used, but printers still distinguished between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. So authors would use ‘- -‘ as a way of indicating to the typesetter and/or copy-editor that they meant an em-dash. This has led a lot of people to suppose that two-dashes-with-no-space is an em-dash, but it’s not. It’s a representation of an em-dash. Very few publishing houses now want to see ‘- -‘ when what the author wants is an en- or em-dash, as most writing programmes allow authors to insert the correct symbol directly into their documents. But as with anything, if you’re unsure, check what the submission guidelines say.

When to use what

We’ve covered a little of this, but there’s a difference between when you can use a symbol and when you might want to, and why.

Em-dashes are pretty straightforward. They are usually used in place of curved brackets, ‘(‘ and ‘)’, or parenthetical commas, or to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. So, let’s call these uses ‘parenthetical em-dashes’ and ‘break em-dashes’. (Note: these points also apply to en-dashs, ‘ – ‘, where the en-dash is performing a parenthetical role or grammar breaking role.)

1. Why would I use a parenthetical em-dash?

Well, a parenthetical remark is one that explains or qualifies the main subject matter of the sentence, but is set off from the main subject matter of the sentence itself. You could remove the parenthetical remark and the rest of the sentence would be unchanged. Traditionally, parenthetical remarks are indicated by parentheses, also called ‘brackets’, because they ‘bracket’ the remark as separate to the rest of the sentence. You’ll be familiar with the following brackets from your keyboard: (), {}, [], <>. In most forms of non-technical writing you will only see curved brackets, ‘(x)’, and square brackets, ‘[x]’. Square brackets are less common, and are typically used to introduce clarificatory additions to quotations whilst making it clear that the inserted text didn’t appear in the quotation itself. For example, if the quotation is ‘He said it was free!’, but I want to make it clearer who ‘he’ is, I might write, ‘[Angus] said it was free!’ or ‘He [Angus] said it was free!’.

Em-dashes cannot be used to replace square brackets – you wouldn’t be able to tell which em-dashes were originally part of the text and which were not! But you can use them to replace curved brackets. In the example above, we could just as easily have written:

Jensen (for that was his name) yelled dramatically:

This has become less fashionable. Using curved brackets has come to feel ‘formal’ and for some readers comes across as breaking up the sentence too harshly. Other writers think that em-dashes are inappropriate for formal work, and would only use parentheses. Unless your style guide says otherwise (and I’ve never seen one that did) both are fine. I use both, generally making decisions based on tone – how ‘cut off’ from the rest of the sentence do you want your aside to feel? – or clarity.

Unlike brackets, em-dashes don’t have to come in pairs, and nothing in the symbol differentiates an open-em-dash from a close-em-dash. It’s just a line. If your aside comes at the end of a sentence you can just finish with a full-stop. As em-dashes are also used for non-parenthetical reasons, the use of the em-dash is worked out from context. For these reasons, you should never use em-dashes within em-dashes. For example, this is too confusing to read:

Jensen – for that was his name – a very fine name at that – yelled dramatically:*

By contrast, with brackets, you can do this:

Jensen (for that was his name – a very fine name at that) yelled dramatically:

I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is not a great sentence and if you’re using parentheses within parentheses you should always consider whether there’s a neater way to accomplish what you’re after, but one of these sentences is easier on the eyes than the other.

Another alternative to using em-dashes for parenthetical statements is the humble comma. This is absolutely fine:

Jenson, for that was his name, yelled dramatically:

Some people have a deep aversion to anything but commas, believing that even em-dashes break up the flow of a sentence too much. For simple cases like the above, that’s fine, but for complex sentences an em-dash can be a blessed relief to a puzzled reader. The trouble is, commas perform many roles, and it isn’t always obvious whether a comma is ending a clause, separating a list item, or performing a parenthetical role. Take this, for example, from one of my WiPs:

The light level rose – courtesy of the computer, she supposed – and Verity stood and waved a hand.

If we replaced the em-dashes with commas, we get this:

The light level rose, courtesy of the computer, she supposed, and Verity stood and waved a hand.

You can read it, but it’s just more helpful for the reader if you make it clearer that the ‘and’ is conjoining ‘Verity stood and waved a hand’ to ‘The light level rose’ and not ‘courtesy of the computer’ or ‘she supposed’.

As with all writing, you want to think about the impression you want to make on your reader, and you want to convey that impression with the least interruption. Choosing commas, brackets, or em-dashes to indicate your parenthetical remark is all about what impression you want to create.

2. Why use a break em-dash?

This style of writing owes a lot to Emily Dickinson. Although dashes had been used in writing before – punctuation was pretty free-form before the 19th Century – Dickinson used dashes in her poems deliberately as a way of breaking free of the strictures of society – particularly male-defined society. This use – using dashes to indicate a deliberate break in grammatical sentence structure – has become very popular since then in fiction, although it is generally regarded as less appropriate for formal non-fiction and academic writing.

Whilst the usage is rarely an attempt to undermine the patriarchy in quite the manner Dickinson intended, using a dash to indicate a break in your character’s train of thought or speech pattern can be very effective. It can also be useful if your writing has a more poetical tone – leaping from point to point in a disconnected fashion can convey a sense of urgency, or disconnectedness, or confusion. Some examples from my WiPs:


“I – I was gonna ask you if you were interested in catching a coffee, or something, sometime – or, well obviously not a coffee, but, you know, a drink – I could have a coffee, and you could have a frappuccino, or – or something.”

Poetic/sudden break:

Shadows shone with dry desert light in a rubbish of glass-song gibberish that clutches in the broken images and –

And gone again.

One final point: both em- and en-dashes are sometimes used to indicate a break at the end of a paragraph, usually in speech. With em-dashes, this is straightforward. You just put an em-dash immediately after the last word in the paragraph. With en-dashes, you face a choice: put the en-dash immediately after the word, or insert a space between the end of the word and the en-dash. And if it’s speech, you also have to decide whether to put the quotation mark immediately after the en-dash, or to insert a space between them:


and –


and- ”

and -”

and – “

I’d say either of the first two is fine, and the third and the last are fine. You’re basically deciding between treating it like an ordinary en-dash, with a space either side, or not.  A space only on one side doesn’t make sense. Apart from that… either option is fine, but your publisher will have a preference. As a writer, just be consistent. Your copy-editor will do the rest. But I would make a plea for you to use an en-dash, and not a hyphen, in these cases.

So, that’s em-dashes (and most en-dashes) for you. Let’s talk about hyphens.

Hyphenated words. Non-fat. Well-adjusted. Anti-deontologicalism. Kestrel-like.

OK. Like so many things with grammar, there is disagreement, and if your publisher says one thing, you do that thing. Some publishers really like solid compounds and want you to use them wherever possible. Some really like hyphens, and will want you to use them wherever possible. You probably have some intuitions about this yourself. But where does this ‘wherever possible’ come from? Well, the dictionary. Some words are just solid compounds and some just aren’t. Werewolf isn’t were-wolf, but were-cat might be either, depending on preference. Well-adjusted is never welladjusted.

So, here are a few helpful rules. As usual, my touchstone is the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.


ODWE prefers for ‘non’ to by hyphenated in most compounds, but not all. When in doubt, get down your dictionary of choice and see what it says! As a writer, consistency is what will make you look professional.


Hyphenate when attributive but two separate words when used with participal adjectives after the verb. Ugh. That’s technical. Here’s the trick: look for the verb – the doing word – and see where the ‘well’ is in reference to that. If the ‘well’ compound is after the verb, it’s two separate words, no hyphen; when it’s before, it’s hyphenated. Some examples:

He is well adjusted.

‘is’ is the verb, so two words, no hyphen.

Well-adjusted teenagers become happier adults.

‘become’ is the verb, so a hyphenated compound.


This varies, so I really would check the dictionary when in doubt, but in general: forms a solid compound where the compound is sufficiently established to be regarded as a thing in its own right (e.g. antibody, antibiotic), but where the meaning is established purely as against some established thing, use a hyphenated compound (e.g. anti-abortion, anti-racist, anti-deontologicalism).


Solid compounds where the word is established (e.g. lawlike, lifelike), except where the first part ends in an ‘l’. For novel compounds, hyphenate (e.g. Kestrel-like).

Apart from that… the dictionary is your friend. Don’t be afraid of looking things up!

But how do I make Word behave?

Word is not reliable at following the rules for hyphens/en-dashes/em-dashes. It’s just a computer programme. If you want your writing to come out neat and profressional, I recommend getting the hang of your keyboard shortcuts. These are the default keys to press:

Em-dash: ctrl, alt, and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

En-dash: ctrl and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

Hyphen… is just your usual ‘-‘ symbol on the main part of your keyboard.

Now, not every computer has a number pad, but you can set your own computer short-cut in the following way:

In Word, go to the ‘Insert’ tab and click ‘Symbol’ on the far right. Select ‘More symbols’ from the drop-down menu. A window will appear. Click the ‘Special characters’ tab. Select the symbol you want to change and click ‘Shortcut key…’. Select the shortcut you want to change, then enter the keys you want for your shortcut into the ‘Press new shortcut key’ box.  Click ‘Assign’. And you’re done.

Hopefully now you’ll be free to use hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes with confidence 😀

*I’m using space-en-dash-space here as that’s clearer to read online.


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One Response to Proofread Along with Rhube #4: em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens

  1. Heath Graham says:

    Phew! Thanks for that, it’s the most thorough and clear explanation of the difference I’ve read.

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