I recently edited a novel where the author used a lot of broken dialogue, interrupted dialogue, and phrasing that often served as side notes in her sentences. For the most part, she had treated each situation with commas or an occasional dash. Because of this, much of the writing tended to run together, without distinctiveness to the sentences. After polishing it up with proper punctuation, her words took on a whole new flair. It’s amazing what the right little marks in your sentences can do for your writing!

Today I’d like to take a look at a constant source of frustration for many writers: differentiating between the use of hyphens, dashes, and commas.

Hyphens: The most common uses for hyphens are to combine compound words (toll-free number), to divide words at the end of a line of text, and to separate numbers or letters (as in a phone number, or when spelling out a word). Hyphens are also used when the second part of  a compound term is omitted (five- or ten-year loan) and often when writing web addresses. For the most part, these are the only times hyphens should be used, if you want to be punctuationally correct (I know punctuationally isn’t really a word, but it works here!).

Typically, instead of a hyphen, what you really want is a dash. There are several forms of dashes (really!), but the two most commonly used are the en dash and em dash.

En dash: This dash is so named because it is the width of a capital N. If you’re using MS-Word, you can insert it by going to the Insert tab on your tool bar, clicking on Symbols, then Special Characters, then En Dash (the 2nd from the top of the list). Since WordPress will not allow me to properly construct an en dash, it will be signified here by two hyphens (–).

Why do you need the en dash, you ask? Several reasons…

Properly used, the en dash will connect inclusive numbers and dates (1996–1999), as well as times (12:00–2:00). It can also be used for inclusive chapters: In the book of Matthew 6–9…

It is also used for to/from destinations: the Miami–Boston flight; or for scores of games: The Cubs finally won, 10–4.

If you do use an en dash, you would not use the phrase “to…from” and vice-versa. For instance, you would say either “The meeting is from 10 to 2,” or  “The meeting is 10–2”; not: “The meeting is from 10–2.”

Em dash: This is the dash most of us think of when we refer to “the dash.” It is so named because it is the width of a capital M. It is constructed the same way in MS-Word as the en dash, except it is found at the top of the list under Special Characters. For our purposes here, I will use 3 hyphens to signify the em dash (—).

The em dash is extremely versatile, often taking the place of commas and colons. Instead of giving commas their own category on this post, I will talk about them here in relation to the em dash, since they are most often misused in this regard.

Perhaps the most common use for em dashes within sentences is when there is an abrupt break in thought:

I am going to the basketball game—even though it’s going to be a blowout—just to appease him.

Often, writers would simply surround that side-note phrase with commas; and, in some cases that can work. In this type of usage, the em dash and the commas may be interchangeable. The test is to see how strong of a statement you want to make with your phrase that is breaking through your sentence. If it’s just a minor aside, then use commas. But if it’s a phrase that you really want to stand out and show its strength in the sentence, you’ll need the em dash.

Em dashes are also correctly used for broken or omitted dialogue:

“I told her she could go with me, but —“

“But what?” Megan replied hastily.

In another case of em dash vs. comma, consider the following sentences:

A laptop, a toothbrush, a change of clothes, that is all she packed for her overnight trip.

A laptop, a toothbrush, a change of clothes—that is all she packed for her overnight trip.

How much stronger and more readable with the em dash instead of the comma! The rule here is that whenever you have an introductory phrase that somehow introduces what follows it—another way of saying this is that an explanatory phrase follows the introductory phrase–the em dash is typically used.

To summarize the use of the em dash, use it for broken phrases or dialogue and in places of commas for a stronger statement or to avoid confusion if you are using several commas to compose a list. Not only is such usage technically correct, but varied use of punctuation will make your writing more interesting and help indicate your areas of emphasis.

My challenge to you is to review your writing and see where you could possibly replace commas with em dashes. Also, look over any inclusive numbers, dates, times, and so forth and replace your hyphens with en dashes. Remember, there are only a few places where hyphens are truly appropriate, so make sure you haven’t misused them in your writing.