Today’s grammar tip: Diving into dashes.

There are three dashes that we should concern ourselves with: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—). I think we’re all familiar with the hyphen, which is the shortest in length and most common of the dashes. The en dash (named because its length should be the same as a lowercase n) is more common than you may realize, but it’s often mistakenly replaced by a hyphen. And the em dash (named because its length should be the same as a lowercase m) isn’t used at Crowley Webb/Praxis – more on that later.

Hyphen: Used to connect words, often these are compound adjectives preceding a noun (remember “follow-up appointment” from our post about open and closed compounds. We also use hyphens for fractions (“two-thirds”), ages (“three-year-old” [but “three years old”]), and spelled-out numbers (“twenty-five”). You do NOT need a hyphen with -ly adverbs (“individually wrapped candies”). But you would need a hyphen with -ly adjectives, like “early-morning rain.” When in doubt, check if the term is in Merriam-Webster. It’s important to recognize if the hyphen will change the meaning of the sentence. Grammar Girl offers a great example: “A hot-water bottle is a bottle for holding hot water. But a hot water bottle is a water bottle that is hot.” See the difference? I could talk about hyphens for days, so let’s move on.

En dash: Most often, the en dash is used in ranges. For example, we can use the en dash for things like business hours, such as “Monday–Friday, 9:00am–5:00pm,” and dates, like “August 20–September 15.” Occasionally we need to use an en dash in place of a hyphen, and this occurs when we’re trying to connect complicated adjectives. For example, instead of “World War II-era costumes” (connects too little) or “World-War-II-era costumes” (interferes with a proper noun), we can use the en dash to say “World War II–era costumes.” This connects the whole proper noun with “era” in a simple, clean way.

Em dash: Typically this dash is used for interruptions or asides—in other words, a related element within or after a sentence. At Crowley Webb, we opt to use an en dash with a space on either side – which looks like this. I’ve already sprinkled some en dashes to signal interruptions/asides throughout this post. Did you notice?! A word of advice: Never use a hyphen when it should be an em dash (or en dash with spaces). And if you can’t get a dash, like in text or email sometimes, use two hyphens — like this — instead.

We’ve just scratched the surface of these lovely little marks, but we’ll stop here (for now). I hope next time you’re chatting with somebody about World War II–era costumes and hot-water bottles, you think of the humble dash.