Em Dash, En Dash, Hyphen, Minus: Dashes in English

Summary

Em dashes are used to set off additional information or to mark a break in a sentence. The em dash is longer than both the en dash and the hyphen.

Examples
  • Three researchers—a senior scientist and two PhD scholars—collaborated on this project.
  • There was nothing we could do—it was all over.
  • I wanted to come to the play, but my car—it had other plans.

An en dash is used mainly to denote a range. It is also sometimes used in place of the word to. The en dash is shorter than the em dash but longer than the hyphen.

Examples
  • The survey was conducted on people aged 30–35.
  • Brazil beat Spain 4–3.
  • I met him on the Amsterdam–Dubai flight.

Hyphens connect words that together modify another word or form a compound word. Hyphens are shorter than em dashes and en dashes.

Examples
  • a walk-in clinic
  • a rash of break-ins
  • a well-established reputation

A minus sign (instead of a hyphen or an en dash) is used in mathematical expressions. The minus sign is about the same length as an en dash but thinner with more space around it.

Example
  • 11 − 10 = 1

Dashes in English

Punctuation marks in the form of horizontal lines help connect, separate, or clarify ideas. In English, we have the em dash (—), the en dash (–), and the hyphen (-). Another horizontal line is the minus sign (−) used in mathematical operations.

Examples
  • Em dash: The facilities offered—swimming pool, sauna, and spa—are all excellent.
  • En dash: We are open 2–6 p.m., Monday–Friday.
  • Hyphen: Do you plan to make a long-term investment?
  • Minus sign: 5 − 2 = 3

The em dash is longer than the en dash, which in turn is longer than the hyphen. The minus sign is thinner than the en dash. In this article, we discuss the differences between the various dashes in English, and when to use an em dash, an en dash, a hyphen, and a minus sign.

Em dash

The em dash (also called the em rule), the longest of the dashes, is used mainly to present extra information and set off parenthetical or explanatory statements. It can also mark a break in a sentence. This versatile punctuation mark can be used in place of commas, parentheses, and colons.

Examples
  • Three nutritious vegetables—broccoli, carrot, and spinach—are the main ingredients in this soup.
  • Our guide—that is, the man who claimed to be our guide—lost his way in the city.
  • Sleep, sleep, and more sleep—that’s all I want on my day off.
  • Nesbit reads only two genres—science fiction and satire.
  • I want to believe you, but that little voice in my head—it says, “Stay away!”
Tip

The em dash derives its name from being about the same width as the capital letter M.

The em dash is generally considered less formal than the colon, which is preferred in academic and other formal usage.

Example
  • Informal: This recipe needs just two ingredients—flour and butter.
    Formal: Submit two forms: 21-BS and 79-V.

In news copy and print journals, a space is often used before and after an em dash. In contrast, books and websites (like this one) generally omit spaces around the em dash, preferring to use a closely held em dash in text.

En dash

The en dash (or en rule), which is shorter than an em dash but longer than a hyphen, is most commonly used to denote a range.

Examples
  • The bank’s working hours are 9:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m.
  • This game is for 3–6 players.
  • Our resort is open for bookings April–September every year.
  • More than 40 million people died from influenza during 1918–1919.

The en dash can also replace the word to and connect two elements of equal importance or show a comparison.

Examples
  • The Paris–Zagreb train is late by three minutes.
  • Spain defeated Portugal, 2–1, in the semifinal match.
  • The board voted 4–3 to appoint a new director.
Caution

Don’t insert spaces around an en dash when using it to connect two words or numbers.

In British usage and in news copy, a spaced en dash is often used in place of an em dash to set off parenthetical or explanatory text.

Example
  • “Still in school uniform, the children and their visiting father – her mother was not there that day – were put in the Home Office van.”
    — “‘We want to build a life’: Europe’s paperless young people speak out,” The Guardian, August 3, 2020
Tip

The en dash is named as such because it is approximately the same width as the capital letter N.

Hyphen

The primary use of the hyphen, shorter than both the en and em dashes, is to connect words to form a compound that indicates a combined meaning. By showing how words are connected in a sentence, the hyphen can help the reader follow along more easily.

Examples
  • The room was filled with old-fashioned furniture.
  • Flamingos turn pink from a diet super-rich in brine shrimp and blue-green algae.
  • All I found in the kitchen was a half-eaten apple.
  • A rare 10-mile-long lake appeared in Death Valley after a storm.
  • Traveling to Mars is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.
Caution

Don’t use hyphens after adverbs ending in -ly (a high-end car but a highly respected teacher).

The minus sign

A hyphen is sometimes used to represent the minus sign, mainly in informal writing. The minus sign does, however, have its own Unicode character (U+2212), which is preferred for use in mathematical expressions, especially in academic writing.

Examples
  • 3 − 1 = 2
  • x2 − y
  • the graph for f(−x)

Typographically, the minus sign and en dash look very similar: the minus sign is slightly thinner than the en dash, and has a little more space around it.

Tip

To insert the minus sign in Microsoft Word, go to the Insert menu, and choose Symbol. From the Symbols subset, select Mathematical Operators, find and select the minus sign, and click Insert.

Usage guide

Em dashes are longer than en dashes, which in turn are longer than hyphens. Use em dashes to set off explanatory statements and mark a break in a sentence, and an en dash to signify a range or replace the word to in constructions like “the London–Berlin flight.” Use a hyphen to connect words and form a compound that conveys a combined meaning (e.g., “well-oiled machine”). The minus symbol, a different character from the hyphen or en dash, appears in mathematical expressions.

Quick Quiz

Which of these is punctuated correctly?
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Which of these is punctuated correctly?
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Which of these is punctuated correctly?
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Which of these is preferred in academic writing?
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Did You Know?

Square brackets are used within parentheses for brackets within brackets.
Know more:Square Brackets [ ] in English: How to Use Correctly