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 (—)?

  • 4
    And there also quotation dash: english.stackexchange.com/questions/28601/…
    – huseyint
    Apr 27, 2012 at 18:10
  • 9
    Another question arises: en-dash or en dash? Oct 28, 2014 at 11:09
  • @WalterTross, Meaning?
    – Pacerier
    May 17, 2015 at 10:22
  • 3
    @Pacerier, the meaning is: should en and dash be separated by a hyphen or a space? This graph by Google might provide the answer, but I'm not sure. May 17, 2015 at 15:52
  • @WalterTross, Is there even an official spelling for that? I'd thought it's a matter of opinion and writing style.
    – Pacerier
    May 24, 2015 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


An em-dash is typically used as a stand-in for a comma or parenthesis to separate out phrases—or even just a word—in a sentence for various reasons (e.g. a parenthetical; an ersatz-ellipsis). Examples where an em-dash should be used:

  • School is based on the three R’s—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic.
  • 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
  • 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, or (self-evidently) a hyphenated name.

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

The minus sign is distinct from all three of the above.

  • 4 − 2 = 2.

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

Figure dash

The figure dash (‒) is so named because it is the same width as a digit, at least in fonts with digits of equal width. This is true of most fonts, not only monospaced fonts.

The figure dash is used within numbers (e.g. phone number 555‒0199), especially in columns for maintaining alignment. Its meaning is the same as a hyphen, as represented by the hyphen-minus glyph; by contrast, the en dash is more appropriately used to indicate a range of values; the minus sign also has a separate glyph.

The figure dash is often unavailable; in this case, one may use a hyphen-minus instead. In Unicode, the figure dash is U+2012 (decimal 8210). HTML authors must use the numeric forms ‒ or ‒ to type it unless the file is in Unicode; there is no equivalent character entity.

  • 12
    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, 2010 at 20:46
  • 26
    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, 2010 at 17:46
  • 19
    @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, 2010 at 17:48
  • 14
    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, 2011 at 6:49
  • 13
    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. Apr 27, 2012 at 18:10

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.