Hyphens and Dashes: When to Use Hyphens and Dashes in Writing (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 22, 2023

Wondering what the difference between hyphens and dashes is? And how to use each one? Look no further—this article will teach you everything you need to know.

In short, hyphens connect words together, while dashes can vary in use, depending on whether it's an em dash or an en dash.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Hyphens and Dashes?

Hyphens and dashes are two forms of punctuation that look like a short line in the middle of a sentence or a word. Hyphens are the shortest, followed by en dashes and em dashes. They all serve a completely different purpose.

In this article, you're going to learn the difference between the two and how to use each one.

When to Use Hyphens

Hyphens are a form of punctuation that's used to connect words. They look like a short line between two words and help show that they belong together.

Here are the different scenarios in which you should use a hyphen:

  • With compound words
  • To connect a word with its prefix
  • With numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine
  • Connect part of a word with its other part if it's split in two due to a line break

Let's take a look at each of these scenarios one-by-one.

With Compound Words

Compound words are two words that are connected because they complement each other in meaning. Two prevalent types of compound words are compound nouns (like father-in-law) and compound adjectives (like fast-paced), but there are others, too.

  • When a hyphen connects two words, it indicates they should be read together as one word because their combined meaning differs from their meaning as separate words.

Take the following sentence, for example:

My great-grandmother always buys me cake.

The hyphen between the adjective 'great' and the noun 'grandmother' tells us that the writer is talking about their relative three generations older—their mother's mother's mother.

Now consider the following sentence:

My great grandmother always buys me cake.

The lack of a hyphen between 'great' and 'grandmother' implies the two words are not connected and should be read separately. In this case, the writer is now talking about their relative two generations older—their mother's mother—and how great she is.

In the first sentence, you've got the noun 'great-grandmother,' and in the second one, you have a separate adjective and noun.

Here are some examples of compound words connected by a hyphen:

The job involves 35-hour workweeks.

Let's play on the go-carts!

I'm heading to the check-in desk to start queuing. 

There are many examples of compound nouns where a hyphen is no longer used. It has been dropped over time, and the two words are now joined together. These are called closed compound nouns, and some examples include 'nighttime' and 'notebook.'

There are also open compound nouns, where the words are separate and don't have a hyphen. 'High school' and 'full moon' are two examples.

Connect a Word With Its Prefix

In the same way that a hyphen connects two words, it can connect a word with its prefix, which is not a standalone word. Prefixes are a group of letters attached to the beginning of a word to form a new word.

Here are some common prefixes:

  • pre-
  • post-
  • extra-
  • bi-
  • im-
  • auto-

Here are some example sentences where a hyphen connects a prefix to a word to form a new meaning:

We're launching a bi-weekly newsletter.

The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic warzone.

Not all prefixes are connected to words using a hyphen. There are many cases where the hyphen has been dropped over time, like with the words 'extraordinary' and 'international,' for instance.

Numbers Between Twenty-One and Ninety-Nine

This section's title says it all: when writing numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine, you should connect the two numbers with a hyphen.

This only applies when spelling out numbers. You don't need to hyphenate numerals

Here are some examples of famous song lyrics that contain numbers that should be hyphenated if spelled out:

I've got ninety-nine problems. — Jay-Z

Those were the best days of my life, back in the summer of sixty-nine. — Bryan Adams

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four? — The Beatles

You may have noticed that an em dash was used to attribute the lyrics to their author, which we'll discuss later.

End-of-Line Hyphenation

If you get to the end of a line and don't have space to write the whole word, you might need to use a hyphen to split the word in two. It's simple: write as much of the word as you have space for, insert a hyphen, then write the rest of the word on the following line.

It'll look something like this:

Dear Amy,

I'm writing to you from Bali, where I'm spen-
ding two weeks on vacation. What a wonder-
ful place! Wish you were here.

XO, Jane

This is a much rarer scenario than it used to be since word processors nowadays tend to adjust this automatically for you and transfer the whole word to the following line. But you can adjust the settings to change this, and besides, you can use this practice with handwriting.

If you do decide to adhere to this practice, make sure you educate yourself properly on the correct way to split words up. You can't place the hyphen just anywhere!

When to Use Dashes

Now let's talk about the dash. It is similar in appearance to the hyphen, but it's a little longer. There are two types of dash: the em dash (—), the longest of the two, and the en dash (–), which is shorter but still longer than a hyphen. These two types of dash can serve several purposes, all of which we'll get into now.

What Are En Dashes?

We'll start with the en dash, which is slightly longer than the hyphen yet shorter than the em dash.

You can use it to:

  • show ranges of numbers
  • replace the word 'to.'

Let's take a more in-depth look at each of these.

Show Ranges of Numbers

You can use an en dash to show the connection when writing a range of numbers in numerals. This works with dates, times, page numbers, scores, etc.

Here are some examples:

The local team took home the cup with a 3–0 score. 

We've booked in the consultant for an hour 1.00pm–2.00pm.

Your homework for next week is to read pages 101–136.

Replace the Word 'To'

The en dash can replace the word 'to' and show linkages between two terms.

The Toronto–New York leg of the journey was particularly tiring.

Our friendship resembles a brother–sister relationship.

The Kennedy–Nixon debates took place in 1960.

What Are Em Dashes?

While we got through the uses of the en dash fairly quickly, the em dash will take us slightly longer because it is used considerably more often.

The longest of the line-style punctuation marks, the em dash can be used to:

  • indicate a pause
  • in place of parentheses
  • in place of colons
  • show an interruption
  • attribute a quote to its author

Let's take a more in-depth look at each of these.

Indicate a Pause

You can use an em dash to indicate a pause in a sentence. It's stronger than a comma but not quite as long as the pause is commanded by a period or semicolon.

  • The main reason you might want to do this is to add a new sentence within your sentence.
  • You can always use commas to do this, but things can get messy if there are already a few commas in your sentence.
  • That's when an em dash comes in; it provides a little clarity.

Take a look at the following sentence, for example:

We entered the escape room, chosen based on your recommendation, and were instructed to remove our shoes, turn off our phones, grab a chalkboard and write down our names.

This sentence is perfectly fine, but there are four commas, so its appearance can be improved somewhat by using em dashes instead of commas, like such:

We entered the escape room—chosen based on your recommendation—and were instructed to remove our shoes, turn off our phones, grab a chalkboard and write down our names.

This also has the added benefit of drawing attention to the part of the sentence in between dashes.

In Place of Parentheses

You can use em dashes if you want to add specificity or detail to your sentence or modify an item. In this way, it resembles parentheses, allowing you to add nonessential information to the sentence. Em dashes will make the information a more integrated part of the sentence than parentheses.

Here are some examples:

I headed to the kitchen at lunchtime for my first meal of the day—I never eat breakfast—despite the fact I wasn't feeling hungry at all.

Lighting a candle—lavender, her favorite scent—she began her evening skincare routine.

We struggled up the steep road—it's given me trouble since I was a kid—and finally arrived home, exhausted.

In Place of Colons

Em dashes can also replace colons when introducing a list or drawing particular attention to a word in the sentence. The em dash is less formal and is best used when the list or item being introduced is at the end of the sentence.

For example:

At long last I saw her, standing there in the pouring rain—my best friend.

I've been waiting a long time to tell you this—I love you.

They play many kinds of music there—garage, grunge and jazz, to name a few. 

Show an Interruption

Em dashes are handy for showing an interruption in dialogue or train of thought. They indicate a sudden break, as opposed to ellipses that suggest a gradual trailing off. It's often used when reporting direct speech.

Here's an example of someone interrupting themselves in direct speech:

"I'm just boarding the train now so I should arrive at—"
"Sally, are you there?"
"Sorry, there was an announcement. They're saying the train has been canceled."

Here's another example, still with direct speech, but this time with the speaker being interrupted by somebody else.

"I don't agree that dogs are more loyal than—"
"Oh, not this again! How many times must we have this conversation?"

Attribute a Quote to its Author

When quoting someone else's words, you'll want to attribute the quote to them. This goes for famous quotes, song lyrics, speech extracts, etc. In short, any time you use someone else's words. Em dashes help you do that.

"The only time you can change someone is when they are in diapers."—Kris Carr.

“There's no place like home.” —The Wizard of Oz, 1939

"Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiences."A Promised Land by Barack Obama

A Few Notes on Using Dashes

Before we conclude, I wanted to mention a couple of things.

First, whether or not you use spaces around your dashes is a stylistic choice. Consult your editor to find out your company's practice, or if you write for yourself, make your own choice, then stick to it.

  • Consistency is the most important thing here.

The second thing is that while dashes are great forms of punctuationthey're very versatile and help make your writing more precise—it's important not to overuse them. Because they often mark a pause in the sentence, using too many can create a stop-and-start rhythm in your text that will surely make your readers' head spin! Where possible, combine dashes with other forms of punctuation. After all, variety is the spice of life.

Concluding Thoughts on Hyphens and Dashes

That concludes this article on the use of hyphens and dashes. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Hyphens and dashes are forms of punctuation that look like a line. 
  • Hyphens are the shortest line, followed by en dashes, then em dashes.
  • There is one kind of hyphen. En dashes and em dashes are the two kinds of dashes.
  • To connect words is a hyphen's primary job.
  • En dashes show ranges and replaces the word 'to.'
  • Em dashes indicate a pause or an interruption, replace a colon or a comma or attribute a quote to its author.
  • Use dashes sparingly to preserve their potency.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our other articles in our Grammar Book, a free online database that covers English grammar from A to Z.

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.