Em, En or hyphen? That is the question

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?


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.


Dog-friendly establishment

Broad-shouldered man

Five-year-old car

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.





And written fractions are always hyphenated.



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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

Shortcut to the Em Dash on a Mac. 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.