After commas, dashes and hyphens are perhaps the most common cause of punctuation confusion I see.

Hyphens (-) are not to be confused with either the en dash (–) or the em dash (—) (there’s another post for that) So what are they and how are they different?

A hyphen is the shortest dash-like punctuation, and the only one you’ll find on your keyboard. A hyphen is used to connect two or more words or pieces of words into one word. Sometimes, using a hyphen can slightly alter the meaning of the words it connects into one meaning. Hyphens are a lot less common than they used to be, but you still use them in three main ways:


Word Separation

Hyphens can be used to join two (or more) pieces of a word that has been separated, usually at the end of a line. This is less common than it used to be, as it serves little purpose in digital media. However, you will still see it in print, especially newspaper, where space is at a premium. If you are using hyphens like this, make sure the placement of the hyphen doesn’t mislead the reader.

Take the word serves above. If I had to separate it, I would use ser-ves. If I wrote se-rves or serv-es, the reader would be thrown off. Similarly, if you separated helmet as he-lmet instead of hel-met, readers would have a much harder time understanding the word.

Additionally, hyphens are used when listing compound words. For example:

Does the period go in- or outside of quotation marks?

Knowing your punctuation can improve your writing two-, three-, or fourfold!

Compound Words

Another use for hyphens is creating compound words. There are numerous different kinds of compound words based on which parts of speech the words are that make them up and which parts of speech they become as a compound, but I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details here.

Some examples of compound words made with hyphens:

He viewed the world with child-like wonder.

She wore noise-cancelling headphones on the plane.

Meeting her future mother-in-law for the first time was nerve-wracking. 

Two of the above examples are correct as written, but the hyphen is not required. The following examples:

He viewed the world with childlike wonder.

She wore noise cancelling headphones on the plane.

are just as correct as the previous versions.

So how do you know when to use it? This use for hyphens might be the most complex, but if you remember that your goal is to communicate effectively, then it becomes simpler. Just ask yourself if including a hyphen in compound makes your meaning clearer or looks better. You probably don’t need a hyphen in noise cancelling headphones because it is obvious that cancelling refers to noise rather than headphones, but you should never leave them out of mother-in-law.

Another way to remember is to decide whether the hyphenated version is used so frequently (and for so long) it has become its own word, with its own separate meaning. Noise and cancelling are two words that you combined to describe the headphones, but they are not inexorably linked in our language like mother-in-law is.

In a similar trend to mother-in-law, childlike has become its own word, but here, the hyphen has been phased out completely.

When in doubt, consult your favorite dictionary. And whatever you decide, remain consistent.  As with all grammar, if you make a reasonable choice and stick with it, it’s right.


Hyphens are also used to attach prefixes to stem words. However, this use is also increasingly fading. Prefixes (such as co-, un-, uni-, de-, pre-, post-, etc.) were once frequently used with hyphens, but over the last few decades their use has diminished significantly (you’ll notice the word prefix will never need a hyphen).

When would you put a hyphen in a word including a prefix?

You should always use one between pre- and a name or date.

The building was built pre-1900’s.

The dress was pre-Victorian in style.

It’s more common when the stem of the word begins with a vowel and the prefix ends with a vowel (i.e. co-own), but many words have evolved to exclude the hyphen even so (i.e. preempt, cooperate).

The cats believe they co-own my dog.

He refuses to cooperate with them.

Your best solution here again is to consult your dictionary (the same one, please) and be consistent.


Remember, the function of punctuation is not to trip up the writer, but rather to make reading easier. Any punctuation used effectively will be invisible to the reader, while punctuation used improperly or inconsistently will draw a reader’s attention to the mechanics of your writing, rather than the substance.






Now that we’ve talked about hyphens, let’s take a look at similar-looking but totally unique dashes—and there are two of them.

The em dash (—)  is the length of three hyphens and is not to be confused with the en dash (–), which is the length of two hyphens. Though they are similar they both have distinct purposes, and I see people confuse them all the time.

En dash (–)

The en dash is the less common dash, but it is still important to know how to use one properly, especially if you type numbers with any regularity. An en dash is the width of the letter N which is how they get their name.

The main use for an en dash is to indicate number ranges.

The 2017–2018 school year was an important one for Meg.

 The cost of redoing the bathroom will be $5,000–$6,000.

The store is open from 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.

En dashes are also used in compound words when the base words are already hyphenated or when two word phrases are used as base words.

The Golden Globe–winning actor gave a speech.

The pro-pineapple–anti-pineapple argument lasted long after the pizza arrived.

Em dash (—)

The em dash is probably what comes to mind when you think of dashes. It is arguably the most versatile type of punctuation in the writer’s tool chest, standing in for commas, parentheses, or even semicolons, as well as serving its own unique purposes. Its name comes from the fact that an em dash is the same width as a letter M. En dashes are primarily used to separate ideas in a sentence, but there are many ways to achieve that.

Appositives that contain commas

An appositive is a piece of extra information included in a sentence. Normally, these are delineated from the main sentence with commas like this:

I ran into Mrs. McKinney, my fourth grade math teacher, at the store.

The words inside the commas give us more information on Mrs. McKinney.  When the extra information you want to convey contains commas, you can use em dashes to set apart the extra information and avoid any confusion that comes with too many commas.

Joe made his usual breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast, and plenty of coffee—before he went to get the paper.

Sara stared at the hole in the window—the new, just-replaced-last-week window—in horror.

It should also be noted that if you have a sentence with too many commas, you can always separate out one of the phrase with em dashes.

Mark an abrupt change in thought

Another common use for em dashes is to show a sharp shift in thought. This is especially common in dialogue.

“Are you even listening to—oh, never mind.”

“Are you going to the—shoot, is that the time? I have to run.”

How is the—No, get down from there!—project coming along?”

You can also use an em dash to show someone being interrupted.

“I was going to the—”

A bloodcurdling shriek shook the house.

Parenthetical Asides

Em dashes can also be used in place of parentheses to give further information or make comments in a way that is more connected to the text outside the dashes than it would be if you’d used parentheses.  For example, if we compare:

I was working—or pretending I was—when my boss dropped by my desk.

I was working (or pretending I was) when my boss dropped by my desk.

These two sentences, while they have the same words and order, have a different feeling. Using em dashes makes the included information more connected with the rest of your sentence, while separating them off with parentheses is more closed off. It seems like offhand information.

When should you use em dashes and when should you use parentheses? You should chose em dashes if you want to emphasize the information contained in the aside. If you would say it out loud with stress on the aside, then dashes are the way to go. Otherwise, use parentheses.  In the end, this is a stylistic choice, so it isn’t about right or wrong, but your style as a writer and what you want to convey in this case.

Instead of semicolons

A semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses; the em dash can also serve this purpose. If you choose to use an em dash instead of a semicolon, it will add more emphasis to your sentence, just as we have seen in previous examples.

Use an em dash when you want to stress the second part of your sentence—they really make your words stand out.

There are other uses for an em dash, but if you keep in mind that they can clear up comma clutter, add emphasis to an aside, and generally give separation to your writing, they will fit in seamlessly.

Using dashes in your writing

An important thing to note in all of these examples is that there aren’t any spaces before or after a dash. Ever. This is always true. Very often I’ll see authors type two hyphens and then a space or some similar combination in place of an em dash, and it just doesn’t work as well.

Since you don’t want to use hyphens—which are the only similar thing on the keyboard—how do you get an em dash? Honestly, figuring out how to type one in each different software can be a pain, but when in doubt, there is always copy and paste.

In Google Docs, you can insert an em or en dash by inserting a special character and then searching for an em dash, but this can be cumbersome. For ease of writing, I often put in three hyphens in place of the em dash and then do a find and replace all once I’m done with the draft.

With Word, you can insert em and en dashes through auto-formatting. If you type a word then two hyphens and then another word with no spaces, Word will automatically replace that with a em dash. You can do the same for an en dash with only one hyphen.

For other software or when writing on the web, it really depends. Sites like Tumblr and WordPress will often format three hyphens into an em dash and two into an en dash, so I recommend trying hyphens to see if it will auto-format for you, just for ease of use.

Keeping dashes in mind while writing allows you to have a greater deal of control over your writing—and of how your readers interpret it. Keep a few simple rules in mind, and your audience—and your editor—will be thanking you.