316

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 (—)?

7
  • 4
    And there also quotation dash: english.stackexchange.com/questions/28601/…
    – huseyint
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 18:10
  • 9
    Another question arises: en-dash or en dash? Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 11:09
  • @WalterTross, Meaning?
    – Pacerier
    Commented 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. Commented 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
    Commented May 24, 2015 at 14:08

1 Answer 1

299

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).

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 expressing a "to" relationship.

The teacher assigned pages 101–181 for tonight’s reading material.

The 2015–2016 fiscal year was the most profitable year for the new business.

New York beat Los Angeles 98–95.

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.

The 40-hour workweek has become a thing of the past.

The skirt was a blue-green color.

It's pronounced hos-pi-tal-it-tee.

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

4 − 2 = 2.

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 mono-spaced 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.

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.

20
  • 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
    Commented 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
    Commented Aug 30, 2010 at 17:46
  • 20
    @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
    Commented 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
    Commented 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. Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 18:10

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