Poor punctuation is the most common mistake writers tend to make (and notably, one of our top editor’s biggest pet peeves).
And when it comes to punctuation mistakes, most writers have been guilty of confusing the em dash, en dash, and hyphen a time or two. After all, they all look pretty similar, don’t they?
Still, these three punctuation marks have markedly distinct roles in the world of grammar—and knowing how to properly use them can not only improve the quality of your writing, but your confidence as well.
The Em Dash
Let’s start with the em dash (—), which is physically the longest of the three. Generally, the em dash is used to separate phrases in a sentence.
A good rule to remember is that an em dash can almost always replace a comma or parenthesis in a sentence. And there are many situations in which it may make sense to swap out your “typical” comma with an em dash, especially when you’re looking to add a longer pause or a little more drama to your sentence.
Consider the example below:
“He loved dogs—but severe allergies prevented him from ever adopting one of his own.”
In this sentence, the em dash is used in place of a comma to indicate a pause.
The En Dash
The en dash (–) is a bit shorter than the em dash and serves a vastly different purpose when it comes to punctuation rules.
Specifically, the en dash is used when signifying a range of numbers or other values. It can be helpful, when reading or writing, to think of the word “to” when you see or use an en dash. Consider the examples below:
“From 1950–1955, she worked as a teacher.”
“I referred him to pages 47–52 in the book.”
“She asked me to check on her cats while she was on vacation from Thursday–Monday.”
The hyphen (-) is probably the most commonly used punctuation mark of the three “dashes”, and the specific punctuation rules for this little mark are also among the most confusing.
In the simplest terms, the hyphen is used to show a relationship between two words or parts of a word—particularly when describing something else (using an adjective). See a few examples of hyphenation used in compound construction below:
“The red-haired girl”
“A three-year-old boy”
“An end-of-June party”
On the other hand, hyphenation can become difficult because there are some specific rules as to when hyphenation should be used.
For example, adverbs ending in “-ly” generally should not be hyphenated. That is, it would be grammatically incorrect to write “the dimly-lit room”.
Furthermore, hyphens can be used for other purposes in writing, such as in a hyphenated name or even to break down separate syllables of a word.
There you have it: some grammar tips regarding the use of these often-confused and pesky punctuation marks!
With a little bit of practice, knowing when you properly use em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens in your writing will gradually become second nature to you!
About the Author
Danielle S is a top-rated freelance writer and editor, available for hire through the WriterAccess platform. Throughout her career, she’s completed more than 10,000 assignments for her clients—including blog posts, press releases, how-to articles, SEO-optimized articles, newsletters, white papers, and more.