Punctuation For Beginners: All About Hyphens & Em Dashes


Welcome to the sixth post in the series: Punctuation For Beginners.

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?