These little lines that float in the air between numbers and letters can certainly give a writer a headache.
I’d like to talk about three most commonly used “lines,” the hyphen (often simply called a dash), the en dash, and the em dash. You can think of the en dash as a line that is about as long as the typed letter “n,” and the em dash as one about the length of a typed “m.”
Here they are from shortest to longest.
– en dash
— em dash
When do we use them?
Does it matter which one we use?
Very much so.
Let’s begin with the shortest. The hyphen is mainly used to separate word parts such as when you are separating a word into syllables, but more often it is used to join two words that belong together.
In compound words:
Not all compound words are separated by a hyphen.
Some examples are:
downwind, houseboat, farmhouse, driveway, postman.
Some compound words need a hyphen.
long-term, mother-in-law, ready-made, fifty-fifty.
If you’re not sure when to use the hyphen between the two parts of the word, use your dictionary and try to remember the word for next time.
Hyphens are used as separators in numbers that are not inclusive. Telephone numbers, ISBNs, or social security numbers, for example.
Or you can use hyphens to spell out a word.
My name is Anneli. It’s spelled A-n-n-e-l-i.
Now that I’ve told you we use hyphens to separate numbers, I have to add that if the numbers are inclusive, such as “one to ten,” and usually if you can say from one number “through” to another number, you need to use an en dash, which is just a bit longer than a hyphen.
Basically, with the en dash, you are saying “up to and including.”
The years 1970–1980 were the best of my life.
For more information, see chapters 8–10.
Come by for a visit on Saturday, 2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
I live at 395–5th St.
Then we have the em dash (—). It is mainly used to set off words or phrases that explain something in the middle of a sentence when an abrupt separation is required and a comma won’t do the trick. Also, a sudden break or interruption in conversation can end with an em dash.
My favourite artists—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cezanne—were not represented at the exhibition.
I looked like I had aged ten years overnight—I hadn’t slept a wink—but it was too late to worry about it now.
We stopped at Amy’s house—what a party she had going on—to pick up my sister.
“What should I—?”
There are many more uses for each of the dashes, but these are the most common ones. Sorting these out would be a good start. After that, we’ll see….