Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: What’s the Difference Between -, –, and —?

Keyboard of manual Smith-Corona typewriter

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes have been around for quite some time, but contemporary writers are not always sure how they should be used or what the difference is between them.

Are These Really That Different?

They are! Despite their having been around for a long time, many people today are not familiar with their use for one main reason: the typewriter.

Space limitations on the typewriter meant that not every character could be represented. Some characters had to do double duty:

  • The numeral l was provided by the lowercase l
  • The exclamation point ! was provided by the . and then backspacing to type ‘
  • The en and em dashes were made by typing the hyphen – twice (- -) and three times (- – -)1I once knew someone who wanted to call her band “Em Dash and the Triple Proxy Hyphens”
The hyphen key on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter

But because there was only one – key on the keyboard, the differences in the usages of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes were lost. Our modern computer keyboards still lack these symbols as separate characters, and although there are some workarounds (such as typing two hyphens in rapid succession to produce an em dash or using ALT codes), our general familiarity with these symbols and their use remains lacking.

Fortunately, we’re here to help.

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Three Common Mistakes Aspiring Writers Make

crop woman using laptop on sofa at home

Writing is easy; good writing is hard. Good writing requires more than a command of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, and good writers need to avoid some very common mistakes.

woman in white long sleeved shirt holding a pen writing on a paper - illustration for common mistakes aspiring writers make
Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

We’re going to look at three mistakes in particular. These mistakes are not over misuse of the serial comma or dangling participles or anything like that. Instead, these mistakes concern the style of writing and the way that style can affect the overall quality of the written text.

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How Are We Supposed to Use Semicolons?

Close-up of computer keyboard with the semicolon key in the center

Some punctuation marks are pretty straightforward—the period, the comma, the exclamation point (unless you’re Elaine Benes). And there are those marks that few know how to distinguish (the hyphen, en-dash, em-dash). But then there are those that are used all the time, but many people are unsure how they’re supposed to be used, like the semicolon. So, how are we supposed to use semicolons?

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Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

Header image for Ending a Sentence with a Preposition: strips of paper with different prepositions written on them

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Some cowboys are mingling at the bar when an Oxford graduate walks in. “Howdy, stranger,” one cowboy says. “Where are you from?”

The Oxford graduate answers, “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with a preposition.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” replies the cowboy. “Where are you from, jackass?”

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To Boldly Split Infinitives

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Spock and Kirk standing behind a model of the Starship Enterprise

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before!

Star Trek, 1966–1969

With these words a new era in science-fiction was launched, and the mission not only of the Enterprise but of an entire franchise was declared.

But these words also irritated an awful lot of grammar purists.

“To boldly go?” they objected. “That’s a split infinitive. That’s bad grammar!”

But why? What is so wrong with saying to boldly go? To understand that, you have to understand something about the history of English.

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Don’t Dangle that Participle

figure of woman labeled "participle" dangling from a cliff

Unlike many of the so-called “grammar rules” that are really style rules, the rule against dangling participles is a good one.

A Dangling What, Now?

A participle is a verbal adjective that comes in two main varieties: the present participle, usually formed with -ing, and the past participle, usually formed with -ed. These verbal adjectives generally function the way other adjectives do:

  • The flowing water pours out of the fountain.
  • The disrespected attorney lost his practice.

In addition, participles can head a phrase that modifies a noun in a sentence:

  • I saw the dog running down the street.
  • She hit the car parked in the driveway.
  • Sitting in the park, I awaited my true love.
  • Beaten back by the revolutionaries, the army fled the field.
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Do I Need to Use the Oxford Comma?

comma

If you’ve been on social media at all and paid attention to grammar arguments, you may have seen a lot of discussion about the Oxford comma and whether writers need to use it.

The Oxford comma—or serial comma—is the comma that appears before the final item in a series, such as:

  • The colors of the American flag are red, white, and blue.
  • The most popular pizza toppings are pepperoni, mushrooms, and olives.

Some people insist that this final comma is unnecessary and that those sentences are just as intelligible if written:

  • The colors of the American flag are red, white and blue.
  • The most popular pizza toppings are pepperoni, mushrooms and olives.
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Singular “They” Is Not the End of the World

Dictionary entry for "they"

Pronouns have gotten a lot of attention lately, primarily because they have been brought to the forefront of efforts to create more inclusive language.

Those wishing to create welcoming spaces for transgender individuals will include their preferred pronouns when introducing themselves. “Hi, I’m Jamal, my pronouns are he/him,” someone might say. This is done to create a space where someone else might introduce themselves as “Jackie, pronouns they/them.”

I have written elsewhere that it can be hard for older English speakers to hear the word they as applying to a specific, defined individual. Nevertheless, the use of they to refer to a singular individual is nothing new—and nothing to fear.

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Grammar versus Style

chalk board with grammar written on it, covered by the word style

No one disputes that good writing has to have good grammar. But what do we mean when we say “grammar”? It may not be what we’re used to thinking it is.

Take, for example, the following pairs of sentences. In each pair, make note of which one is grammatical.

  1. Who are you going to the dinner with?
  2. With whom are you going to the dinner?
  1. He wanted to completely destroy the enemy city.
  2. He wanted to destroy the enemy city completely.
  1. A writer should trust their instincts when composing an essay.
  2. A writer should trust his or her instincts when composing an essay.
  1. And so, we find that we are tempted to edge closer and closer to absolute certainty in doctrine, belief, and ideology. But is such certainty even possible?
  2. We find that we are tempted to edge closer and closer to absolute certainty in doctrine, belief, and ideology. Is such certainty even possible?
  1. Who would be willing to give that up? Not me.
  2. Who would be willing to give that up? I would not be willing to do so.
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“I don’t need an editor—I write really well.”

text with proofreading marks in red

Editors hear this a lot. Sometimes we say the same thing. Perhaps you have as well. There’s just one problem with the statement:

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone.

text with proofreading marks in red

One of the biggest challenges to good writing is the “curse of knowledge.” The curse of knowledge is when a writer knows what they1Yes, I used a singular “they” here—more on this in another post! mean, so they don’t bother explaining it.

You can have a perfectly grammatical paragraph, free from misspellings, typographical errors, and grammatical errors, and it can still be difficult to understand because the ideas are not adequately explained or the structure itself is unclear. Take a look at this example:

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