How to Use Dashes

A big part of my job lately has been copy editing. It’s not exciting but it is important. Most of the time it’s just correcting little things like extra spaces (there’s only ONE space after a period!), writing out acronyms or fixing capitalization. One of the most common mistakes I come across is the misuse of dashes. Below I’m going to cover the most common dashes and how to properly use them in your writing. Once you get these down, someday a graphic designer will thank you for your well-typed copy.

When most people think of a dash, they probably think of a hyphen (-). Technically it’s not a dash but it is closely related. Hyphens are used in certain compound words like mother-in-law. Most people don’t have issues with using hyphens.

En dashes (–) on the other hand are often misused, or rather not used. These dashes are meant for a range or passage of time, like 8–10 p.m. or Nov. 12–15. Most people end up just putting a hyphen but the correct character here is an en dash. Another thing to note is that you don’t put spaces on either side of an en dash.

The em dash (—) is the largest dash. It’s purpose is to break into a thought. Often times this break is in the middle of a sentence and plops an idea or description in the middle of another thought. The most common mistake here is to use to hyphens instead of an em dash. This is incorrect usage that, like the double space after a period, results from the limitation of typewriters back in the day. Some modern word processor programs will auto-correct a double hyphen to an em dash but it’s a good idea to get in the habit of typing it yourself.

Now that you know a little more about which dash (or hyphen) to use, you probably want to know how to insert them. This Wikipedia article shows the keyboard shortcuts and HTML character codes. You can find a little more reading on the subject of dashes at WikiHow too.