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Em, En or hyphen? That is the question

As a graphic designer, you will often be required to do more than design. Understanding the correct use of grammar and punctuation is a highly valuable skill, particularly when working on large publications. When a graphic designer considers other important aspects of their work beyond the visual elements, and the end product as a whole, they become a powerful and valued designer.

When a graphic designer considers other important aspects of their work beyond the visual elements, and the end product as a whole, they become a powerful and valued designer.

Susan Mackell, Smack Design

So what are the differences between the Em Dash, En Dash and Hyphen, and when should we use them?

The first thing you’ll notice about the Em and En Dash and the Hyphen is the size difference — the Hyphen being the shortest followed by En, then Em. Beyond this simple aesthetic, what are the differences and when do we use them?

Hyphen

The Hyphen is the shortest of the dashes and the easiest to find due to it’s presence on the main keyboard. It is used when two words are related and work together to function like one adjective — known as a compound adjective — and generally comes before a noun.

Example:

Dog-friendly establishment

Fast-acting drug

There is no need to hyphenate when the noun comes before the compound adjective ie The drug is fast acting.

Hyphens are also used with the prefixes Ex, Self and All.

Example:

Ex-wife

Self-starter

And written fractions are always hyphenated.

Example:

Three-quarters

Words ending in ‘ly’, or the word ‘very’, are rarely hyphenated.

Example

Newly made

Hyphens are also used in all written compound numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine.

En Dash

The middle sized dash— En— is the length of an ‘N’ and is generally the easier one to navigate in your writing given it’s very specific use in showing ranges—typically dates, times and numbers.

Example

Winter is June-August

The temperature range for today is 5-15 degrees

School runs from  9:00-3:00

Short cut to the En dash using a Mac and PC. To create an En Dash on a Mac press the Option (or Alt depending on your keyboard) + Minus (key to the right of the number Zero) key.

To create an En Dash on a PC press Alt + 0150.

Em Dash

The longest of the dashes, Em is the length of an ‘M’. Em dashes can be used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses and is generally seen as less formal. The Em Dash is mainly used to set a phrase apart.

Example

All six of the girls—Milly, Sorcha, Hilda, Kailey, Julie and Heather—participated in the fundraiser this year.

I ran into Ms Parker—my daughter’s dance teacher—in the supermarket today.

The Em dash is also used to interrupt dialogue, and show a change of thought or stammering in dialogue.

Example

Jeff started the lesson. “Good morning class, today we—” “Excuse me Sir,” Sarah interrupted.

I was going to get a—what did mum say she needed?

“I—I can’t remember what he said,” whispered Jane.

The Em Dash can be used in place of a colon or semicolon at the end of a sentence with only one dash.

Example

Mary needs three things from the hardware store—nails, screws and paint.

I love Vegemite on toast—my brother loves peanut butter.

To create an Em Dash on a Mac press the Option (or Alt depending on your keyboard) + Shift + Minus (key to the right of the number Zero) keys.

To create an Em Dash on a PC press Alt + 0151.

For more information on hyphens and dashes, you may also find this Grammarly article helpful.