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Using Dashes: Em Dash vs

Using Dashes: Em Dash vs. En Dash

You know how it is. You’re at a party, chatting merrily, and then someone brings up the em dash. You nod wisely, hoping no one will notice the terrified confusion in your eyes, and then quickly change the subject: “Speaking of Dash, what do you think of the new Incredibles movie?” Punctuation crisis averted—at least for now.

We’ve all been there. But no longer! All your dash questions are about to be answered. For example, what is the use of a dash in English? What is the purpose of an em dash? What is an en dash used for? How exactly should we be using dashes? And what is the difference between a hyphen and a dash? How do I know if I’m using dashes correctly?

To begin with, an en dash is so named because it is (or used to be in the days of typesetting) the width of an N. En dashes are mostly used to connect number ranges. An em dash, logically, is the width of an M. Em dashes are typically used to set off information or add emphasis.

Do You Use a Hyphen or an En Dash Between Words?

This depends on the situation. When you are looking to represent a conflict, connection, or even directions, you should use an en dash, for example:

  • The state–federal law conflict will remain an issue for the cannabis industry.
  • The California–Florida flight leaves in two hours.
  • Interstate 10 runs east–west across the United States.

Joining Compound Adjectives

Another time you might choose to use an en dash between words is for compound adjectives. Most of the time, however, this is an aesthetic choice and proper grammar does not require that you use an en dash instead of hyphen in these situations.

Correct (with en-dash): The award–winning screenwriter landed another gig.
Correct (with hyphen): The award-winning screenwriter landed another gig.

Combining Names: Hypen or En Dash?

When combining names—usually last names—whether you use a hyphen or an en dash depends on the context.

For example, in the case of two names belonging to different individuals who share credit for something, you would use an en dash:

Example: Einstein–Rosen Bridge

On the other hand, if you’ve just gotten married and you are combining your maiden name with your new surname, then you will use a hyphen:

Example: Julia Granowicz-Johnson

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