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Quick guide to hyphens and dashes

Quick guide to hyphens and dashes

This quick guide is for you if:

  • you want to up the professionalism in your writing
  • you have ever wondered what the difference is between hyphens and dashes
  • you just want to know more about grammatical rules.


@@Want to learn about hyphens and dashes? Check out this post@@


The most obvious difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes is their different sizes. See below.


You can see that these punctuation marks are quite different, size-wise. They also have different uses.


The hyphen

These little guys may be tiny, but they're super useful. Use them correctly and you'll look like a grammar pro.

Use the hyphen to link words. The main functions of the hyphen are to:

  • Join compound adjectives (usually before nouns, unless the first word in the compound adjective is an adverb; that is, ends with -ly)

    The couple went to dinner at a well-reviewed restaurant.


    The couple went to dinner at a highly respected restaurant. (The hyphen is dropped because of the adverb.)

    and also

    The restaurant where the couple had dinner was well reviewed. (The hyphen is dropped because the compound adjective comes after the noun.)
  • Express ages when the age modifies the noun (usually, that means it will appear before the noun)

    They left their two-year-old child at home. 


    Their child was two years old.
  • Join numbers and fractions
    • Numbers from twenty-one through to ninety-nine

      The restaurant had fifty-three guests that evening.
    • Fractions

      One-third of those diners ordered the chicken.
  • Add prefixes and suffixes to words
    • Prefixes

      The chef's ex-girlfriend called him while he was watching the chicken, and he became distracted.
    • Suffixes

      He also burned the sugar-free brownies while he was on the phone.


The em dash

Use the em dash to separate items. The main functions of the em dash are to:

  • Indicate an abrupt shift in tone or break in the sentence
    • Abrupt shift in tone

      The chef thought that the food was perfectly cooked—but it wasn’t.
    • Unfinished thought

      'I’ve been there for—Wait, did you say that the chef served raw chicken?'
    • Hesitation or interruption

      'I’m so sorry. I don’t know what—' The chef was cut off by angry diners.
  • Separate parenthetical clauses (parenthetical clauses are parts of the sentence that are separate from the rest, and could be taken out without changing the meaning of the sentence too much)
    • Distinct difference in parenthetical clause

      The chef—if you can even call him that any more—is currently the subject of an investigation.
    • Punctuation in parenthetical clause

      Unfortunately, several critics—including those from The New York Times, The Guardian, and MX—were at the restaurant that evening, and were also stricken with severe cases of food poisoning.
  • Introduce explanation or elaboration
    • Introductory series

      Raw chicken, undercooked seafood, and dangerously spicy curry—these were the most toxic dishes of the evening.
    • Concluding series

      At the hearing, the witnesses said that the food poisoning had three main symptoms—vomiting, an upset stomach, and nausea.
    • Concluding explanation

      'Oh, just serve them already'—this was the exclamation that witnesses seated near the kitchen reported.


The en dash

Use the en dash to link items. The main functions of the en dash are to:

  • Indicate spans of figures, time, and distance
    • Figures

      'I direct the jury to pages 45–65 of the medical report.'
    • Time

      The defendant was sentenced to 50–60 hours of community service.
    • Distance

      The chef had to walk 2–3 kilometres to attend his community service.
  • Indicate relationships between words with separate identities

    MX recently reported that the Australia–India relationship was severely damaged as a result of the chef serving an Indian delegate raw chicken.
  • Join prefixes or compound adjectives that have more than one word attached
    • Prefixes

      Post–raw chicken saga, the government introduced tighter health and safety laws.
    • Compound adjectives

      A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist covered the chef’s story from start to finish.



Generally, use the hyphen to join words, use the en dash to link words or phrases, and use the em dash to separate parts of sentences.

Did this guide help you to understand hyphens and dashes a bit better? Let us know in the comments.

@@Hedera House's quick guide to hyphens and dashes@@

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