Check out this primer to learn when you should use a hyphen, en dash or em dash in your writing – and how to make each on your keyboard!

Hyphen, en dash, em dash, short dash, long dash, thick dash – figuring out what to call that minus-like punctuation mark, which seems to vary in length depending on the circumstances, can be difficult. Even worse is knowing when to use which of these little lines.

Although hyphens and dashes look pretty similar, they are, in fact, quite different from each other. Some link items together while others separate them. And the line lengths – they’re not as arbitrary as you might think.

Here’s a quick overview of these marks, and why each works the way it does.

 Hyphens

Hyphens are joiners. They’re used to link two words to create a compound modifier (full-time job, well-known man, second-quarter earnings). Simple rule, right? Well, of course there’s an exception. The adverb “very” and all adverbs that end in -ly are very clearly exempt from the compound-modifier rule (see what I did there?).

To add another layer of confusion, words that you would compound before the noun they modify (The team scored a last-minute touchdown.) aren’t compounded when they come after the noun (The team scored a touchdown at the last minute.).

UNLESS (because there’s always an unless) the modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs after a form of the verb “to be.” Then, the hyphen is kept to avoid confusion (The children are soft-spoken. The man is quick-witted.).

One last hyphen usage rule: The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which Vela follows as its in-house style guide, uses a hyphen with no spaces around it to indicate ranges (Jan. 3-8). Other style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), use an en dash without spaces instead.

And you thought the hyphen was the easiest mark of the bunch, didn’t you?

En Dashes

As I just mentioned, CMOS uses the en dash to indicate ranges, such as multiple dates or a series of page numbers (153–69). When used in this fashion, it should not have spaces on either side.

The AP, however, doesn’t use the en dash at all. Instead, they use only the em dash (see below for more on THAT variation).

Curious as to why it’s called an en dash? Because the length of the dash is the same as the width of a capital N.

Em Dashes

If the en dash is as long as an N is wide, then it would stand to reason that an em dash is as long as an M is wide, right? Yep, you got it. (Finally, something that makes sense in this whole mess!)

But, other than length, how does the em dash differ from the en dash? While the en dash is used as a bridge for similar items, the em dash is used to separate ideas or signal an abrupt change in thought (Her new roommate was quiet and polite — quite unlike her previous tenant.). Also em dashes have spaces on either side of them, unlike en dashes.

Sounds great, right? But here’s the thing, em dashes are — not to be rude — kind of horsey looking. They take up a lot of space and really affect how a sentence or paragraph looks.

So, if you’ve got a discerning eye, you’ll notice that the ONLY place we’ve used em dashes in this article is, well, in the em dash section.

In fact, here at Vela, we don’t use em dashes at all. Because we want the words we write to convey a certain aesthetic, we actually use en dashes in the place of em dashes. Heresy? Eh. I like to think of it as inspired design.

In fact, Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style – which is more commonly known as the unofficial bible of the modern typographer – also argues that dashes in text should be made with en dashes rather than em dashes. Why? Because according to Bringhurst, using an en dash achieves the same effect as an em dash without being so visually disruptive.

Why It Matters

So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about hyphens (-), en dashes (–) and em dashes (—).

Now I bet you’re thinking, “This is a LOT of information.” and “Why in the world does she care so much about these obscure punctuation marks?”

The truth is, most people have never heard of an en dash or em dash and couldn’t pick one out of a paragraph if you paid them. But they know when something doesn’t look “right” or when a sentence doesn’t read the way they expect it to. They might not be able to put their finger on the cause of the disruption, but they subconsciously know there’s a problem if hyphens, en dashes and em dashes get jumbled together in a website or brochure.

And that’s why we’re here, to make sure you put your very best foot forward at all times.

So when you’re ready to start your next project, give us a call. We’ll make sure it reads great – and looks great at the same time.