What dash to use?

It may be confusing to know what dash to use – whether a hyphen (-), an en dash (–) or an em dash (—) when writing. In this article we outline when to use each type of dash and provide examples.


Hyphens are used to create compound modifiers and linked words, to show where a word breaks at the end of a line and to indicate a missing or implied element of a term.

When a phrase with multiple words is placed in front of a noun as a descriptor, the words must be hyphenated to show that they are related:

  • The three-year-old girl liked the swings at the playground.
  • The computer system includes state-of-the-art technology.

Note that when one of the words ends in -ly, a hyphen should not be used:

  • The reviewer bashed the poorly written novel.

Some words should be hyphenated even if they don’t precede a noun:

  • Brother-in-law
  • Merry-go-round
  • Half-mast

If you’re unsure whether a compound term should be hyphenated, check your dictionary.

En dash

An en dash gets its name from the width of the dash; on standard typewriters, it’s the same width as the letter ‘n’. En dashes are used to show ranges of numbers and relationships between words.

Number ranges:

  • He was active in politics from 2001–2011.
  • The participants in the study were aged 18–25.

Relationships between words:

  • The professor–student relationship is an important part of the educational system.
  • The north–south interstate was closed due to a traffic accident.

Em dash

Like the en dash, the em dash gets its name from its width; it’s the same width as the letter ‘m’ on a standard typewriter.

The em dash is used to set text off from the rest of a sentence, much in the same way commas and parentheses are used. Note that using em dashes too frequently can make it harder for readers to grasp the meaning of the text, so they are best used sparingly.

  • When she went to the store—a task she had been dreading—she ran into her least-favorite neighbor.
  • The three color choices available—red, green and yellow—were his least favorite colors.

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