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National Punctuation Day: Those Darn Dashes

Happy National Punctuation Day! We want to commemorate this sacred writer's holiday with a little lesson on an often confusing topic: those darn dashes.


here are three different dashes: the hyphen (-), the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). So, what's the difference between these punctuation pieces, other than being small, medium and large? Well, as you could have guessed, each mark serves a distinctly different purpose.

The Hyphen

The hyphen is primarily used to form compound phrases, like pre-owned, three-year-old or X-ray. It is also used for word division when copy is justified (as in magazines, books and newspapers) to split a word between the end of one line and the beginning of another.

The En Dash

The en dash is used to denote a span or range of numbers; for example, "the years 2013–2014" or "the score was 20–26." In these instances, you can think of the dash as reading "to" or "through."

The en dash is also used between words that are not a compound phrase, but rather represent a relationship of some sort between two items. For example:

  • The Gaza–Israel War

  • The Denver–New York flight

  • The east–west route

The Em Dash

The em dash—one of my personal favorites—can replace commas, parentheses or colons within sentences and are excellent for placing particular emphasis. Two em dashes can also be used to stand in for a missing or omitted part of a word, as in "Ms. F——," and three em dashes represent an entirely missing word, like "the ——— drove away."

So, to summarize:

  • Hyphen (-) forms compounds and splits words.

  • En dash (–) denotes a span or relationship.

  • Em dash (—) creates pauses and emphasis or stands in for missing elements.

Author: Niki Hale, Frankly Communications


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