Punctuation For Beginners: All About Hyphens & Em Dashes

Punctuation For Beginners: All About Hyphens & Em Dashes


Welcome to the sixth post in the series: Punctuation For Beginners. This post is all about hyphens and em dashes.

Punctuation is the name for the marks we use in writing. Punctuation marks are tools that have set functions. We use them to give a sentence meaning and rhythm.

(Look out for the punctuation posts every Tuesday. Sign up for our newsletter to get our Daily Writing Links, and you won’t miss out.)

Today, I will be writing about hyphens and em-dashes.

What are hyphens?

hyphen is a punctuation mark (-) that joins words, indicates the division of a word at the end of a line, or indicates a missing element.

The hyphen is used:

  1. To avoid multiple consecutive letters. Example: re-evaluate [reevaluate]
  2. If the root word is capitalised. Examples: pre-Christmas, anti-European
  3. With specific prefixes and suffixes. Examples: self-sacrificing, all-seeing, ex-wife, vice-chairman
  4. To form compound words. Examples: sit-in, stand-out, mother-in-law
  5. With fractions and numbers between 21 and 99. Examples: one-half, sixty-four, twenty-eight and three-quarters
  6. With words that start with a capital letter. Examples: X-ray, T-shirt, U-turn
  7. To divide words at the right hand margin.
  8. To indicate a missing word. Example: short- and long-term

Tip: The use of hyphens is decreasing in compound nouns. Most people write website rather than web-site.

What are em-dashes?

An em dash is a punctuation mark (–) used to mark a pause or break.

We call a long dash an ’em dash’ because it is the width of the letter m. A long dash is used to add a statement—like this—in the same way you would use brackets.

An em dash, or long dash, is used to:

  1. Separate parts of a sentence and force us to pause. Example: Many women—like the one in this article—have been abused.
  2. Serve a similar purpose to a comma, colon, or a semi-colon. Example: She looks like a saint—she isn’t.

Tip: Em dashes are more common in informal writing. Avoid them in formal writing.

P.S. En dashes (named because they were originally the width of the letter n) join numbers in a range or words that describe a range. An en dash can be substituted with the word ‘through’. Examples: 1939–1945, pages 5–8, May–June.

Suggested reading:

  1. 10 Tips For Using Hyphens
  2. Know Your Dashes

Learn how to write for business. Join us for The Plain Language Programme

 by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Punctuation For Beginners: All About Colons & Semicolons
  2. Punctuation For Beginners: All About Question & Exclamation Marks
  3. Punctuation For Beginners: All About Commas
  4. Punctuation For Beginners: All About Full Stops
  5. Punctuation For Beginners: What Is Punctuation?