This blog post originally appeared on the Blogger page Kali’s Bookshelf in October 2019.
If reading is like driving a car, then punctuation marks are like traffic signs. My English teacher in elementary school used that analogy many times. It has stayed with me over the years. Although, I will admit to switching that imaginary car out for a horse. Two “traffic signs” that create a great deal of confusion for both writers and readers are hyphens and dashes. Authors will often either give up trying to correctly place them or overuse them to avoid breaking grammar rules. What is a writer to do? I had some struggles of my own which led to some research. I wanted to know how to use these punctuation marks and how to remember them. My findings resulted in not only some handy reminders but also some new knowledge about the different uses for each punctuation.
The first point that a writer needs to understand is that a hyphen and dash are not the same. These marks complete very different jobs. The hyphen is meant to connect words or parts of words. For instance, it connects a word that is made up of more than one word such as brother-in-law. It can also be useful for signaling that a word has been separated between two lines on a page, but digital communication has made that relatively unnecessary today. Hyphens do many more jobs such as creating compound adjectives, connecting written out numbers, clarifying written out ages, connecting ranges, and adding prefixes and suffixes. The best description I came across is from the always helpful Grammar Book which describes hyphens as the glue of grammar. The hyphen’s goal is to clarify. At times, something makes much more sense when spoken than when written. Hyphens indicate in writing what would normally be implied by how it’s spoken.
Dashes serve another purpose in writing. There are both em dashes and en dashes. If you really want to complicate matters, you can also break down em dashes further into two em dashes and three em dashes. We are going to keep things simple though. The en dash is easily confused with a hyphen. It is slightly longer than a hyphen and its purpose is sometimes similar. The en dash mainly brings distant relatives together. By this, I mean the en dashes connect ranges such as page numbers (1–2), dates (November–December), and actual ranges (Sacramento–Honolulu flight). En dashes also complete the special task of prefixing proper nouns. A hyphen would normally do when prefixing a word, but proper nouns are a special case.
The em dash is much more assertive and very versatile. It takes the place of commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses in a sentence to create different emphases and pauses. It is a longer line than either the en dash or hyphen. When creating emphasis, the em dash sets the emphasized part off from the rest of the sentence. It can also create pauses that can be a little longer than other punctuation. A final function the em dash has is indicating broken speech such as if one speaker interrupts another.
Now that you know the differences amongst all these punctuation marks, you are most likely wondering how they are going to help you in your writing. Hyphens and dashes can help replace some of the more common punctuation marks and give your content a clearer voice. The trick is to not overdo it. Some writers get a little ambitious and hyphenate everything like this supposed-one-word-but-not word. That can be overwhelming to your reader. It can also be confusing to see an overabundance of dashes, as anyone who has read Emily Dickinson’s poetry knows all too well. On the other hand, an absence of hyphens and dashes can create confusion because the reader may not be able to understand what the author is meaning. In short, moderation is key. If it will add value, use it. Otherwise, it might be better to skip it.
The hyphen, en dash, and em dash all serve unique purposes that help writers create clear and accurate content. They can demonstrate parts of speech that are not so easy to represent on paper with words alone. As a rule of thumb, remember that hyphens act like glue, en dashes want to bring everyone closer together, and em dashes want to stand out. Of course, if you ever are in doubt, look it up! It’s always better to spend time researching than correcting errors.
 “Hyphens,” Grammar Book, Retrieved October 28, 2019, https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/hyphens.asp.
 “Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes,” Chicago Manual of Style Online, Retrieved October 28, 2019, https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html