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Back to Basics — those pesky dashes


I am going to start this article by stating that ‘the dashes’ (hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes) are my most disliked form of punctuation and I am terrible at using them correctly. The reason for this is mostly sheer laziness. In the common Word document, creating an en or em dash requires some fancy finger work. For example, to get an em dash you need to press Ctrl plus Alt plus the minus symbol on the numeric keypad. Not the other one above the hyphen. Or you can press Alt and then type 8211 on the numeric keypad. This doesn’t always work on laptops without the numeric keypad, by the way, so you have to insert a symbol.

Seriously, is it no wonder that most people simply use the easily accessible hyphen and leave it at that?

So, what’s the difference between these elusive pieces of punctuation and what do they actually do?

The em dash is the most commonly used dash — so much so that it’s sometimes called ‘the common dash’. It’s about the width of a capital M (see what they did there — em dash) and its job is to indicate interrupted speech, introduce a list, replace commas or parentheses when they aren’t quite right, mark an abrupt change in subject mid-sentence, plus a couple of other very dashing tasks.

The en dash is, I’m sure you guessed it from the name, the width of a capital N. We grammar nerds do have a sense of humour! The en dash is the quiet achiever of the dashes. It’s used between numbers and dates, such as 2014–2020 or 9am–5pm. It’s also used to replace the word ‘to’ between names when speaking of boundaries, treaties, or opposed forces etc. So if we were talking about public transport for example you would say the Midland–Perth train.

Then there is the hyphen, who doesn’t have a cool name at all. I don’t have the official measurements, but from eye-balling it, it seems about as wide as the letter h. As well as being the lazy alternative to em and en dashes, the hyphen’s main job is to join words or parts of words. You might be joining two words to form a ‘new’ word (I work full-time hours), or adding a prefix or suffix (the pre-match interview was shown first), or when writing out numbers in full (my sister is twenty-five in March).

Technically the dashes are not interchangeable, however, the average Joe isn’t going to remove you from their Christmas card list if you use the wrong dash when emailing them or writing out your shopping list. If you’re writing professionally, your boss may have a different opinion so you’d best start doing your finger exercises so you can reach that minus key alllll the way over there on the numeric keypad.