The Secret Lives of Hyphens & Dashes

DraculaWe all know that hyphens and dashes exist in the English language, but how many of us know the difference between them? Or that there are actually four different types of dashes?

Today, we will look at these elusive punctuation marks and the myriad roles they can play in our writing. By the end of this post (if you make it that far), you will know the difference between a hyphen and a dash — and you will probably be wondering what crazy person decided we needed four different kinds of dashes. Unfortunately, I can’t help you there.

Let’s start with a visual, so you can see the physical difference between each mark:

Hyphen: –
En dash: –
Em dash: —
2-em dash: ——
3-em dash: ———

(Ideally, the 2-em and 3-em dashes should be unbroken, but that’s easier said than done.)

Okay, now let’s review the ways in which to use each of these.


These days, there are three ways we use hyphens:

1) In compound words:

  • He was a blood-sucking fiend, but otherwise he was a real A-list guy.

2) As separators for non-inclusive numbers (like telephone numbers) or to indicate a word being spelled out (often seen in dialogue or when referring to American Sign Language).

  • Call the Undead Chat Line now! 1-800-666-DEAD
  • My name is Vladimir; that’s v-l-a-d-i-m-i-r.

3) In URLs and email addresses:

En Dashes

The en dash is mainly used to connect numbers (and occasionally words), such as dates, times, scores and directions. In this context, the en dash means up to and including and the rules of grammar say you should never use an en dash if the words from or between come before the first element in the pair.

  • Morticia indicated 11:00 p.m.–5:00 a.m. as her preferred shift.
  • Azrael said he had been underground from 1982 to 1991.

You can also use an en dash to indicate an unfinished range of numbers.

  • Jack shivered when he found her name in the book. It simply said:
    Lilith Black (1666–).

Em Dashes

The em dash is the most versatile and most common of all the dashes. When someone talks about a dash, they are usually talking about an em dash. They can be used in place of commas, parentheses, colons and even quotation marks.

Typically, an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break or to indicate an element that either explains or amplifies the preceding element. Let’s look at some examples:

Instead of a comma:

  • I couldn’t believe that Dracula — king of the vampires — was here in Montreal.

Instead of parentheses:

  • Even up close, Dracula’s three wives — Camilla, Lilith and Mina — were stunningly flawless.

Instead of a colon:

  • When faced with all these vampires, we knew there was only one person we could call — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I hoped she spoke French.

Instead of quotation marks:

  • —I’ve come to suck your blood.
    —But Vlad, we’ve only just met!

To indicate a sudden break:

  • “Oh Vlad,” she moaned, “we must not — ouch, that hurts —”

2-Em Dashes

A 2-em dash is used to indicate a missing word or part of a word. Typically, it would be used when something is deliberately left out (someone’s name or an expletive) or if the word was obscured/illegible in the original material.

  • Polite society was scandalized by the behaviour of Captain V—— at the ball.

3-Em Dashes

A 3-em dash is used in a bibliography, followed by a period. Similar to ibid. in function, the 3-em dash indicates the same author or editor listed in the previous entry.

  • Van Helsing, Abraham. Vampire Staking For Dummies. London: Talmud Press, 1872.
    ———. The Essential Tools of a Vampire Hunter. London: Talmud Press, 1875.


Image credit: © Wingnut Designs /

7 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Hyphens & Dashes

  1. Good stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Em Dash correctly, and I wasn’t even aware (or forgot) there was such a thing as a Three Em Dash. I’m sure some teacher somewhere tried to get them all straight in my skull, without success, I’m afraid.

    1. Thanks for commenting Karen! I don’t think we were ever taught about the different dashes in school – I remember being amazed to discover there were so many!

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