Sometimes a dash isn’t just a dash. Do you know when to use a hyphen and when to use either an em or en dash? Did you know there were em and en dashes? It can be easy to confuse them, but they have unique uses.
- Napoleon (1769-1821) escaped from exile, for better or worse.
- The Seahawks-Seattle’s football team-won the Super Bowl at last.
- They were 15 — 16 years old.
Em dashes are the widest dash, and are so handy. They can replace parentheses — where an aside might appear — and that’s not all! They can also replace commas — as long as you have a pair — in many sentences. They can even replace a colon — like this. The slightly shorter en dash serves to join a pair of numbers (1769–1821 or 15–16) or to connect two ideas (such as the Canadian–American linguistic divide). Hyphens are often mistakenly used in place of en dashes, but they have their own uses, as you already learned.
MORE TO KNOW
En dashes are the width of the letter n (–), and em dashes are the width of the letter m (—). To make them on your computer, learn these simple keystroke combinations: For Macs, press option + hyphen to make an en dash, and shift + option + hyphen (or use two hyphens) for em dash. On a PC, use ALT + 0150 (en dash) or ALT + 0151 (em dash).