How to Create and Use Dashes and Hyphens

Know the Difference Between These Three Similar Marks

Comparison of hyphen, en dash, and em dash, and letters n and m, in various fonts.
This chart shows different hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. Richard Lyon/WikiCommons

One mark of professionally set type is the proper use of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Each is a different length and has its own usage. Put your best foot forward in your online and in-print documents by learning when and how to use en dashes (-), em dashes (—) and hyphens (-).

When to Use a Hyphen

Hyphens join words, such as "state-of-the-art" or "son-in-law," and they separate characters in phone numbers like 123-555-0123.

Hyphenation indicates there is a relationship between individual words, most commonly compound adjectives, which are two or more words that together make an adjective. When the words come directly before a noun, they are hyphenated; when they come after the noun they are not. For example, a client may offer a long-term project or he may offer a project that is long term.

The hyphen is easy to find on computer keyboards. It sits right up there next to the zero key. This mark is used as a hyphen and as a minus sign.

The Difference Between En and Em Dashes

En and em dashes are both longer than hyphens. The size of the en and em dashes is roughly equivalent to the width of the N and M, respectively, for the typeface in which they are used. In 12-point type, the en dash is about 6 points long, which is half the em dash, and the em dash is about 12 points, which matches the point size. (The measurement term "points" is used in typesetting.

An inch equals 72 points.)

When and How to Use an En Dash

En dashes are primarily for showing duration or range as in 9:00–5:00 or March 15–31. There's no key on your keyboard for an en dash, but you can create one by using the keyboard shortcut Option-hyphen on a Mac or ALT-0150 in Windows, in which you hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad.

If you work with web pages, create an en dash in HTML by typing  or use the Unicode numeric entity of  (with no spaces).

When and How to Use an Em Dash

Use an em dash to set apart a clause in a sentence, similar to how you use a parenthetical phrase (like this). The versatile em dash can also be used to add a strong break in the middle of a sentence or to emphasize the content between the dashes. For example: Her best friends—Rachel, Joey, and Scarlett—took her to dinner.

Em dashes are preferred in place of double hyphens(--) as punctuation. You won't find the em dash on your keyboard. Type an em dash using Shift-Option-hyphen on a Mac or ALT-0151 in Windows by holding down the ALT key and type 0151 on the numeric keypad.

To use an em dash on a web page, create it in HTML with  or use the Unicode numeric entity of (with no spaces).