Have you ever put spicy mustard on a sandwich? If you inadvertently glob on too much of the good stuff, you’ll swear you just snorted wasabi. When it comes to spices that are in your face (literally and figuratively), a little bit can go a long way.
In the same way, hyphens and dashes—when sprinkled into sentences properly—add just the right punch. Not only will we learn how to use the hyphen (-) properly today, but we’ll also learn how to use both the en (–) and em (—) dashes.
Let’s start with hyphens. Hyphens are like glue for two words that are connected. Use hyphens in compound adjectives, which are adjectives that precede a noun they modify in order to connect them together. Examples of compound adjectives include well-known, blue-haired, one-eyed, and ill-conceived. Hyphens are also used to separate numbers (three hundred sixty-five) and to create a line break when syllables of the same word get separated. We still see this sometimes in books and newspapers, but we see it less often now that text is not set by hand.
En dashes (–) are all about range. Use an en dash in order to show a range of numbers. Barack Obama was president from 2008–2016. The Thunder beat the Jazz, 120–101. The store is open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. The en dash is named as such because it is about the width of the letter “n.” To type an en dash on a PC, press ctrl+minus. For PC laptops without numeric keyboards, you can type alt+0150 or insert-special characters in Word. On a Mac, press option+hyphen.
The em dash (—) is the length of the letter “m.” Generally use it as a more dramatic substitute for other punctuation, like commas, colons, semicolons or parentheses. Do not—I repeat—do not put spaces around the em dash; allow the words to bump up right next to the em dash to show the immediacy and drama it interjects. To type an em dash on a PC, press alt+ctrl+minus. For PC laptops without numeric keyboards, you can type alt+0151 or insert-special characters in Word. On a Mac, press option+shift+hyphen.
Dashes and hyphens are generally used incorrectly because, in order to use them correctly, you have to know the right way to employ them. If you want to get a shiny gold star sticker on your grammar chart, learn the difference between hyphens, en dashes and em dashes.
—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.