Hyphen vs. Em vs. En vs. Everything Else
2019-09-13 00:00:00 -0500

As I’ve begun working on this website, I’ve figured that I tend to use this punctuation a lot:

But — is not the same as -. Depending on the font and text editor, it can be hard to tell the difference. Let me show it to you this way:

-

Do you see it 👀? The top line is slightly longer than the middle, and the middle line is slightly longer than the bottom. Because they’re all so similar, and I always want to make sure to use the correct punctuation in each circumstance, I thought it’d be a good idea to do some research into what they each mean, how to write them, and how to use them.

The Hyphen

The hyphen is what we think of as a small dash. It should be used when combining two words together into a compound word, such as the following:

  • well-being
  • like-minded
  • freeze-dried

The hyphen is also typically used as a minus sign in mathematics. Technically, the minus sign sits a bit higher than the hyphen (− vs. -), but the only great way to make a minus sign is through emojis or special symbols, and that usually takes more time than it’s worth.

To Space or Not to Space

Generally, there should be no spaces surrounding a hyphen. The only exceptions would be in mathematics (where there should always be spaces around mathemtical operations), and when using a hanging hyphen.

How to Type a Hyphen

A hyphen key can be found on the top bar, usually between the 0/) and =/+ keys (on the typical Qwerty keyboard).

To type an official minus sign, as I alluded to before, you’ll need to go through special symbols or through emojis. Hint: to quickly type an emoji in any text box/editor on a Mac, just type CMD+CTRL+SPACE.

The Em

The em dash is what we normally consider as a dash. It’s the longest form of a dash, and is to be used when placing a break in the middle of a sentence. They can be used as parentheses, like this:

This is an example sentence—just in case you need one—that shows off the use of an em dash.

Or they can be used one at a time to detach the ending of the sentence from the beginning.

Sally said that she was coming at 6—it is now 8 and she’s still not here.

They can be useful when trying to write a longer sentence that contains a lot of commas, such as the following:

We got pencils, pens, notebooks, highlighters, and folders—all of which were on sale, of course—for the kids to have for school.

Em Dashes vs. Parentheses vs. Commas vs. Semicolons Vs. Ellipsis

When do we use em dashes (versus parenthesis, commas, semicolons, or ellipsis)? Generally, em dashes should only be used when a comma doesn’t provide enough break in the sentence. If a comma works, then use that. Parentheses should be used when the enclosed part of the sentence is helpful, but not necessary. Em dashes draw attention to the enclosed words; parentheses draw attention away from them. Semicolons should be used to attach two sentences that go together, such as the sentence right before this one. An ellipsis is used to indicate a longer pause, or that something is missing. Examples:

  • Comma:

    Billy painted the walls blue, even though he doesn’t like blue.

  • Parentheses:

    Even though Michael said he didn’t like Trish romantically (I didn’t believe him one bit), he still asked her to prom.

  • Semicolon:

    Chris suggested his mom would be in for the holidays; apparently I misunderstood.

  • Ellipsis:

    I’m going out to buy a … what is that thing called again?

  • Em dash:

    We spent over $100—most of which was on groceries—at Target the other day.

To Space or Not to Space

There should be no spaces surrounding the em dash.

How to Type an Em Dash

On a Mac, press ALT+SHIFT+- keys. Also, in some word processors, typing -``- will automatically turn into . If you’re using a Windows machine, you’ll have to look elsewhere for resources on this—I only use Macs.

On iPhones, press and hold the -, and a window will pop up that lets you select the .

The En

The en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em dash (the width of the en dash should be almost exactly the width of the letter “N,” while the width of the em dash is the width of the letter “M”). The en dash means “through”:

  • 1992–2004
  • Page 36–91
  • May 6–17

To Space or Not to Space

There should be no spaces surrounding the en dash.

How to Type an En Dash

On a Mac, press ALT+- keys. If you’re using a Windows machine, you’ll have to look elsewhere for resources on this—I only use Macs.

On iPhones, press and hold the -, and a window will pop up that lets you select the .

References