The Different Types of Dashes and How to Use the Correct One in Your Writing

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Dashes are one of the most common punctuations in writing, but many people (including me) sometimes confuse the different types. Not every dash is created equal, and surprisingly, the little line in your writing has a unique purpose based on its length and usage in the sentence. Confusing? I was in the same boat not long ago, but this post will clarify the different varieties of dashes and the correct way to use them. Read on, and enjoy.


The Hyphen

Now, this one seems simple enough, right? A hyphen connects two words that are closely related to one another. A hyphen can be typed with the minus (-) key on your keyboard. For example, four-fifths or chocolate-covered or family-owned are great examples of hyphenated words. At any rate, you've probably used a hyphen without realizing! Here are some instances where a hyphen is used:

  • When using a compound adjective before the noun. (A hyphen is not needed when the adjective comes after the noun).

Let's use an example from above:

This is a family-owned business.

This business is family owned.

In the first case, the adjective was family-owned as it described the noun that came after (business).

In the second case, the noun came before the adjective, which is why a hyphen was not used.

  • When age is used as an adjective before the noun. (A hyphen is not needed when the age comes after the noun).

The five-year-old boy cried for his mommy.

The boy, who cried for his mommy, was five years old.

In the first case, the adjective was five-year-old as it described the noun (mommy) that came after.

In the second case, the noun came before the adjective, like the previous example.

Note: old is included with the hyphenated age because it is part of the adjective describing the noun. If can't simply be five-year boy. (This applies to all adjectives describing age).

  • For numbers 21 through 99.

A hypen is required when writing out numbers between (and including) 21 and 99.

The man was twenty-two years old.

Her grandmother's cake had eighty-four candles.

My baby sister could count from one to ninety-nine.

The En Dash

This dash is evidently longer in size than the hyphen (but shorter than an em dash), and connects items related to one another by distance. Some examples include February–July, or pages 39–48. The en dash specifies a range. Fun fact: this dash is particularly named after the letter "N" because it's supposedly the same width as the letter!

You may be wondering—how do I type an en dash? Well, unlike the hyphen, which has its own key for it on the keyboard, an en dash can be created by holding on Alt and the dash (-) key! For windows, holding down on Alt and typing 0150 should create the mid-size dash! Now, here are some instances where an en dash is used:

  • For Number and Date Ranges.

For example:

Our part-time employees work 25–40 hours per week.

Today's homework is completing the questions on pages 20–25 in the textbook.

* During the years 1939–1945, World War II greatly impacted the world.*

*** Note: If I rephrased the sentence above and said "World War II was a global war that occurred from 1939..." an en dash would not be used. That is because whenever "from" is used before a number or date range, the word "to" should be replaced in the place of where the en dash was supposed to be. Similarily, the word "and" should be replaced when a range is being introduced with the word "between". So, to finish the sentence, we would say "World War II was a global war that occurred from 1939 to 1945 / World War II was a global war that occurred between 1939 and 1945".

  • For Scores and Direction.

For example:

The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-3 on May 27. (This is actually real, they did).

A Denver–Toronto flight departs in one hour.

The Em Dash

Last but not least, we have the em dash. This is the longest of the three dashes, and can be used to add a thought to a sentence or break up a long sentences with many commas. Another fun fact: this dash is named after the letter "M" because it has the same width as the capital letter! These can be typed on a Mac pretty easy; all you have to do is press Shift + Alt (Option) + Dash (-). On windows, all you have to do is press Ctrl + Alt (Option) + Dash. Here are some instances where an em dash is used:

  • For putting focus on parenthetical information between the em dashes.

Note: For this, two em dashes are required; one before the information and one after it. Putting spaces before and after the dashes is your choice, however I personally don't add any spaces and the examples below won't, either!

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is one of the few books—no, the only book—you will need for Literature class this semester.

He was going to abandon the assignment—or was he?—when someone threatened to tell the teacher on him.

  • For offsetting Appositives with Commas.

✎ First of all, what's an apositive? Well, it's a small portion of information that is added for clarification. Commas usually offset the apositive, but more than one tend to confuse the reader. Thus, dashes are used to offset them.

For example:

Five of us—Katie, Jules, Luka, Mariam, and I—went to the cinema yesterday.

If you need something, call the number on my business card—work, not fax—and I'll answer.

The question words—who, what, when, where, why, and how—retrieve information in English.

  • For Listing.

Dishes, laundry, brooming, reading—the tasks are completed, and I can finally rest.

Crocodiles, alligators—they look the same to me!

Pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers—all pizza toppings sound amazing!

  • For Marking Interrupted Thoughts

✎ Em dashes can prompt a sudden change in the direction a writer is heading with their writing. This technique is best used for creative/informal writing.

Some examples are:

Mary, can you get the—Don't touch that, Dru!—Mary, can you get the remote for me, please?

Where is my—wait, what was I thinking about?


That's all for now! I hope this was helpful to anyone who was confused about the different types of dashes :) Leave a like if you found this useful to your writing, and feel free to comment down your thoughts below! I'll see you in the next post, until next time HoneyScribblers <3

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