Use of hyphens in English: En Dash and Em dash

A dash in English is a horizontal line, bigger than a hyphen, that comes in the middle of a sentence and indicates a pause or a break, or shows a range between two things. There is a video lesson (on dashes) attached at the end of the post; you can directly scroll down to it if you want to.

Types of dashes in English

There are two types of dashes in English:

  1. Em dash
  2. En dash

The functions of the en dash and the em dash are completely different, so it’s important to master these separately.

Em dash and en dash usages in English
Em dash and en dash usages in English

Em dash

The punctuation em dash (—) is as long as the letter m. It’s longer than the en dash (–). We use em dashes to introduce a break or introduce a piece of information that the writer wants to focus on.

It is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English language as it can function like a comma, colon, parenthesis, and even a colon. Let’s look at the different situations where the em dash is and can be used in a sentence.

1. Use the em dash to introduce a pause in a sentence (just like a comma)

Use the em dashes to take a pause and add extra information to a sentence. It comes before and after the extra information that is added to a sentence.

Examples:

  • My father⁠—a wrestling coach⁠—has always got me what I wanted.
  • When the match finished—nearly around 10 pm—we decided to stay in the stadium and meet the players.
  • The only person I care about in the class—apart from you—is Jacob.

Notice that in the above sentences, the em dashes are used to insert extra information into the sentences. A pair of commas and parenthesis can perform the same function.

  • My father, a wrestling coach, has always got me what I wanted.
  • My father (a wrestling coach) has always got me what I wanted.
  • When the match finished, nearly around 10 pm, we decided to stay in the stadium and meet the players.
  • When the match finished (nearly around 10 pm) we decided to stay in the stadium and meet the players.
  • The only person I care about in the class, apart from you, is Jacob.
  • The only person I care about in the class (apart from you) is Jacob.

2. Use the em dash to replace a colon to introduce something as a conclusion, justification, or summarization of the previous texts.

Generally, a colon is used to introduce something that you want to focus on in a sentence or an explanation of something previously mentioned. But the em dash can replace the colon and do the same job.

Examples:

  • Most people are striving for one thing in life: money.
  • Most people are striving for one thing in life—money.
  • He can’t join us today: his mother has fallen ill.
  • He can’t join us today—his mother has fallen ill.
  • Don’t forget to bring the items that we need to make the dish: milk, cheese, bread, and dark chocolate.
  • Don’t forget to bring the items that we need to make the dish—milk, cheese, bread, and dark chocolate.
  • We have planned some activities for the day: visiting the NGO, meeting the kids and the teachers, and giving them some books and food.
  • We have planned some activities for the day—visiting the NGO, meeting the kids and the teachers, and giving them some books and food.

3. Use the em dash to interrupt the flow of a sentence and drop some off topic information in it.

  • Jane shouted at the teacher—no one saw it coming—and left the class in hurry.
  • Last night was amazing. We sat along a beach, listened to some songs—look at me when I am talking to you— and talked about some funny childhood stories.

Note that the information that’s coming inside the em dashes is extra; the writer is inserting explanations or afterthoughts of thought inside the em dashes (like I did here). Also, note that we could use parenthesis in place of em dashes in these sentences.

  • Jane shouted at the teacher (no one saw it coming) and left the class in hurry.
  • Last night was amazing. We sat along a beach, listened to some songs (look at me when I am talking to you), and talked about some funny childhood stories.

4. Use the em dash to introduce a list (just like a colon).

  • We need three things to be successful in life: dedication, passion, and consistency.
  • We need three things to be successful in life—dedication, passion, and consistency.
  • I will never forget about happened on the trip: we lost our phones, Sam almost fell off the cliff, and we had to sleep on the street for two nights.
  • I will never forget about happened on the trip—we lost our phones, Sam almost fell off the cliff, and we had to sleep on the street for two nights.
  • They are learning 3 languages: English, Chinese, and Spanish.
  • They are learning 3 languages—English, Chinese, and Spanish.

Now, let’s understand how to the en dash in English.

En dash

The punctuation en dash smaller than the em dash and smaller than the hyphen. It is as long as the letter n in the English language.

1. Use the en dash to introduce a range of numbers, time, and dates.

  • The time 9–⁠10 pm is when I am available for the calls.
  • Every person in the company needs to work at least 30–⁠35 hours a week.
  • Chapters 5–⁠9 are the most important chapters in the book.
  • I will be back in 3–⁠5 days.
  • There were around 400–⁠500 people in the seminar.

NOTE: the en dash here works as the preposition ‘from’. Keep in mind that if a range starts with the preposition ‘to’ or even the preposition ‘between’, the en dash is dropped.

  • I will be busy from 6pm–⁠9pm. ❌
  • Between March–⁠July, India is playing 3 test series. ❌
  • I will be busy from 6 pm to 9 pm. ✔️
  • Between March and ⁠July, India is playing 3 test series. ✔️

2. Use the en dash to report the result of a match or a contest.

  • India won the series 4–⁠1 and shocked the naysayers.
  • We beat SSCR 24–⁠11 in the last game.

3. To show a connection.

  • The India–⁠Canada flight takes 14 hours.
  • We can’t visit the India–⁠Pakistan border right now.

Congratulations, you guys have mastered the usages of em dash and en dash now. Be sure to practice what you learned today in order to use it effectively. Feel free to correct any typing mistakes you come across (as I make a lot).

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