Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes — What’s the Difference?

by Crystal Paradis-Catanzaro

Ever wonder why there are three lengths of dashes, and if they each have a specific intended use (spoiler alert: they do!)? Or, mayhaps you hadn’t even noticed that there ARE varying lengths of dashes! Never worry — I’m here to help!

Brevity is the sole of it: The Hyphen

The hyphen (-) is what appears when you hit the dash key on your keyboard, and is the smallest in the dash family. As its name suggests, it’s used to make hyphenated words, compound modifiers, and hyphenated phrases.


  • Hold still, I’ve got to turn on my X-ray.
  • I love my curly-haired schnoodle!
  • My up-to-date calendar shows that I am totally free to go to Street for a bibimbap.

Note: As relating to numbers, and (heaven forbid!) mathematics, this is also the symbol for minus, or is indicative of a negative integer.

Happy Medium: The En Dash

The en dash (–) is the medium-length dash, and is made (on a Mac) by hitting “Option” + “-” together. It is used to express a range of numbers, such as quantity, time, and date ranges. Think of it as a substitute of the word “through.”


  • This recipe calls for 12 – 18 lilikoi.
  • The meeting is Wednesday, 11:30am – 1:00pm.
  • My vacation is 2/27 – 3/6.

The Emily Dickinson: The Em Dash

Famously peppered throughout the writings of Emily Dickinson, the em dash (—) is made (again, on a Mac) by hitting “Shift” + “Option” + “-” together. It is a punctuation mark that sets apart words or clauses, and can be used similarly to parentheses, commas, and, in some cases, semicolons. A dashed clause, however, generally is intended to be emphasized, whereas a parenthetical clause (or one set off with commas) is meant to be deemphasized.


  • She had the nerve — the NERVE — to sit in my chair!
  • If what you say is true — and you’d better not be lying — I’m going to have to call the authorities.
  • How are you still here — aren’t you exhausted?

Note: In plain-text instances, the em dash will translate over as two hyphens (–).

As with all grammar rules, some uses are up for discussion depending on context or style guides in place, but hopefully this is a helpful rundown of typical correct usages of the three dashes.

Can you think of other good uses of these three types of dashes? Disagree with my examples? Let me know in the comments!

— Me