I wrote this article in 2005 for my RWA chapter’s newsletter The Quizzing Glass. I tend to punctuate intuitively, thus the Chicago Manual of Style sits on my desk and I write articles like this:

I hate the subtleties of punctuation—so many rules, so little motivation to learn them. I could never keep the en dash, the em dash and the hyphen straight, and so I chose to avoid them. Did avoidance help my writing? No.

With a little research, I learned a great deal. For instance, the em dash helps a reader “hear” your story with the pacing you intend—almost like you are telling the story directly to them, in your own voice. What a wonderful tool for an author to have! Interested in hearing more?

The En Dash and the Em Dash

The en dash and the em dash are named according to their lengths. The en dash is the length of an N; the em dash is the length of an M.

En Dash

The en dash means “through.” It is used to indicate inclusive dates and numbers:

July 9–August 17; pp. 37–59.

Em Dash

The em dash is commonly referred to as, simply, “the dash.” It:

Indicates sudden breaks (in thought, sentence structure or interruption in dialogue)
“I will never—,” Emma began.
“I won’t be long”—her voice lowered to a husky whisper—“stay right here.”

Amplifies or Explains
The sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—all loved to write.
He could not bear it. His wife—the love of his life—was missing.

Separates the Subject from the pronoun
Women—nothing scared him more.

For clarity, it is best never to use more than two em dashes per sentence.

What about the 2-em and 3-em dashes?

There are other uses to the em dash. The 2-em (twice the length of the regular em dash) is used to show a missing word or part of a word, to disguise an expletive or to disguise a name. When a part of word is missing, no space appears between the part of the word and the 2-em dash, but a space follows the 2-em dash (representing the end of the word)
“Lady A—— was seen in a compromising position.”

The 3-em dash is used in a bibliography to show that the same author or editor in preceding entry is being referenced.


Guidelines for the use of hyphens is are many, with some usage coming down to a matter of personal taste. In general, hyphens:

Break words that do not fit on a justified line of type
He promised to be with her al-

Separate compound words
Emma looked down on her middle-class neighbors.

Separate characters in number sequences
The Book’s ISBN Number is 0-226-10403-6

Show spelling or pronunciation
“My name is Anne, that’s A-n-n-e not A-n-n.”
The title is pronounced Vi-count, not Vis-count.

Spell out ages or join numbers
Penelope’s three-year period of writer’s block ended when she turned fifty-five.

Combine words that include a prepositional phrase
Sometimes you can be such a stick-in-the-mud.

When a hyphen is used to connect compound words or phrasal adjectives, its purpose is to avoid ambiguity. Generally, when an adjective and noun (or adjective and a participle) are used together to describe a noun, they should be hyphenated, unless they appear after the noun they describe.
You have created a very open-hearted heroine. BUT Your heroine comes across as very open hearted.
She liked to create free-form sculpture. BUT The sculpture she created was free form.

A hyphen is never used with words ending with -ly.
She was one intensely excited debutante.

The most common usage of the hyphen, breaking words that do not fit on a justified line of type, is done automatically by most word processors. However, if the word is not in the dictionary of your word processor, the program will hyphenate according to mathematical rules. To be safe, you should always check the words automatically hyphenated by your word processor.


There are no individual keys that display the en dash or the em dash. The Chicago Manual of Style advises, unless otherwise instructed by an editor, “use a single hyphen both for a hyphen or for an en dash, two hyphens for an em dash, four hyphens for a 2 em dash and six hyphens for a 3 em dash.” In Microsoft Word, en and em dashes can be created by pulling down the “Insert” menu, clicking on “Symbol,” and going to the “special characters” window. The en and em dashes appear on the list.

With only two exceptions, there should be no space on either side of the em dash, the en dash or the hyphen. The first exception, stated earlier in this article, is when the 2-em dash is substituted for a missing (or partially missing) name or word. The second exception is with a hanging hyphen (for example, the word “eighteenth” in the phrase “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reference books”). In both exceptions, the symbol used will have a space after—but not before unless otherwise instructed by their editors it.

The en dash, em dash and hyphen have become less of a mystery for me and, I hope, for you as well. Next, armed with my well-worn Chicago Manual of Style, I’m off to tackle colons & semi-colons. Wish me luck…

Wendy La Capra, The Quizzing Glass editor 2003–2005, used this article to self-educate. She hopes you will find it useful—not-to-mention interesting.

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