How to Create and Use Dashes and Hyphens

Know the difference between three similar marks

One mark of professionally set type is the proper use of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Each is a different length and has a separate usage. Here are the differences between these three similar marks and when to use each of them.

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When to Use a Hyphen

Hyphens join words, such as "state-of-the-art" or "son-in-law," and they separate characters in phone numbers like 123-555-0123. Hyphenation indicates a relationship between individual words, usually compound adjectives, which are two or more words that together make an adjective.

When the words come directly before a noun, they're hyphenated. When they come after the noun, they're not. For example, a client may offer a long-term project, or they may offer a project that is long term. The hyphen is next to the zero key on a keyboard (and above the plus sign on a numeric keypad). It also has the Unicode entity U+2012.

The Difference Between En and Em Dashes

En and em dashes are both longer than hyphens. The size of the en and em dashes is roughly equivalent to the width of the N and M, respectively, for the typeface in which they appear In 12-point type, the en dash is about 6 points long, which is half the em dash, and the em dash is about 12 points, which matches the point size.

Typesetting uses the measurement term "points." An inch equals 72 points.

When and How to Use an En Dash

En dashes are primarily for showing duration or range, as in 9:00–5:00 or March 15–31. An en dash doesn't have a key on your keyboard. Create one on a Mac with the keyboard shortcut Option-hyphen.

In Windows, hold down the ALT key, and then type 0150 on the numeric keypad. If you work with web pages, create an en dash in HTML by typing "–" or "&ndash." You can also use the Unicode numeric entity of U+2013.

When and How to Use an Em Dash

Use an em dash to set apart a clause in a sentence, similar to how you use a parenthetical phrase (like this). You can also use an em dash to add a break in the middle of a sentence or to emphasize the content between the marks. For example, "Her best friends — Rachel, Joey, and Scarlett — took her to dinner."

Use em dashes in place of double hyphens (--) as punctuation. Like the en dash, you also won't find a dedicated em dash key on your keyboard. Type an em-dash using Shift-Option-hyphen on a Mac. In Windows, use ALT + 0151. To use an em dash on a web page, create it in HTML with "—" or "—." You can also use the Unicode numeric entity of U+2014.