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I generally know how to use a hyphen, but when should I use an en-dash instead of an em-dash, or when should I use a hyphen instead of an em-dash?

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3  
And there also quotation dash: english.stackexchange.com/questions/28601/… –  huseyint Apr 27 '12 at 18:10
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1 Answer

up vote 74 down vote accepted

An em-dash is typically used to act as a comma or parenthesis to separate out phrases—or even just a word—in a sentence for various reasons (i.e. an appositive). Examples where an em-dash should be used:

  • School is based on the three R’s—reading, writing, and ’rithemtic.
  • Against all odds, Pete—the unluckiest man alive—won the lottery.
  • I sense something; a presence I've not felt since—

An en-dash is used to connect values in a range or that are related. A good rule is to use it when you're expressing a "to" relationship. Examples where an en-dash should be used:

  • in years 1939–1945
  • pages 31–32 may be relevant
  • New York beat Los Angeles 98–95
  • Olivia Newton–John
  • When American English would use an em-dash – following British and Canadian conventions.

A hyphen is used to join words in a compound construction, or separate syllables of a word, like during a line break.

  • pro-American
  • cruelty-free eggs
  • em-dash
  • it's pronounced hos-pi-tal-it-tee

Finally, a minus sign is distinct from all three of the above.

  • 4 − 2 = 2.

If you want to use the correct dash or hyphen in StackExchange comments, just use the appropriate HTML entity: — for em-dash, – for en-dash, and − for the minus sign. The hyphen is, of course, on directly your keyboard.

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One question though: I thought it was customary to use em-dash without spaces—like this—on either side. But you did separate it with spaces in your first sentence. Do you know more about this? –  Jonik Aug 29 '10 at 20:46
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You're absolutely right. I added spaces around the em dashes out of habit of putting spaces around HTML entities. Chicago (my preferred style manual) indicates that no space should surround em-dashes. I edited my answer accordingly. Optionally, you can use hair spaces around em-dashes as well. –  waymost Aug 30 '10 at 17:46
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@Jonik: different style manuals have different opinions, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash#Em_dash and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash#En_dash_versus_em_dash –  RegDwigнt Aug 30 '10 at 17:48
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Depending on your computer, you may well be able to type en- and em-dashes directly as well: on a Mac they’re option-hyphen and option-shift-hyphen respectively, and I believe that Windows machines have something similar these days. They’re not part of the original ASCII character set, so were not as reliable as —, – in the past, but all modern browsers (and the stack exchange software) cope with the simpler parts of unicode completely fine these days. –  PLL Jan 11 '11 at 6:49
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I’m pretty sure that British English sometimes (?) uses en-dash in places where you’ve cited em-dash. Also, why the en-dash in “Olivia Newton–John”? As far as I know this always uses a hyphen (I’m assuming that it’s a name). Note that this is different from the form in Nicholas’ comment which is indeed usually rendered with an en-dash. –  Konrad Rudolph Apr 27 '12 at 18:10
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protected by Jasper Loy Apr 28 '12 at 11:36

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