Hyphen a bad time?

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How to use Hyphens, En dashes and Em dashes correctly in fiction—and beyond!

One of the most common mistakes I run into as a freelance book editor is the incorrect usage of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes in manuscripts...and I can't say I'm surprised. For years, I assumed there was really no difference, that it was all a matter of taste, or that it varied depending on which country you lived in. Then I started training as a freelance book editor and had a lightbulb moment. Turns out, despite having never been taught the difference in school, it really does matter which little dash you use when writing.

Here's my handy writer's guide to the correct usage of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. Bookmark this page and save it for later—it won't be long before these pesky little lines start wreaking havoc on your manuscript again.

What is the difference between a Hyphen and a Dash?

Even if you don't know their names, you're likely to be familiar with all three.

A Hyphen ( - ) is found on most keyboards. It's used primarily to join two words together. An En dash ( – ) is wider than a Hyphen. It's used primarily to represent a span or range, such as when writing dates. An Em dash ( — ) is commonly represented by joining two Hyphens together ( -- ), though you should note that this is incorrect usage, derived from the habit of using keyboard shortcuts on word processors. It's used primarily in place of Parentheses and Colons to extend a sentence, or to elaborate parenthetical content (that being the text you might otherwise put inside 'brackets'/Parentheses, as I'm demonstrating here).

As a writer, you should pay close attention to the correct usage of Hyphens, En dashes and Em dashes—not only to keep your editor happy, but to ensure consistency in your writing that will help to make every message clear and easy to read.

...Feeling ready for more?

Hyphen ( - ) Usage

The Hyphen is the small one. That's as easy as it is to remember. And the small one should only be used to join (or "hyphenate") two words. If you simplify it like that, there's much more chance you'll be able to recall it during your next writing session.

For example, a Hyphen should be used in the following sentence:

'Sunny rounded the corner and let out an ear-splitting scream when she saw the monster.'

En dash ( – ) Usage

The En dash is used in a similar way to the Hyphen, in that it connects two things together—but instead of connecting nouns, verbs, or adjectives, the En dash should be used to connect numbers, dates, or days. The easiest way to remember this is to consider the En dash a replacement for words like "through", "to", and "until".

For example, an En dash should be used in the following sentence:

'She had read pages 98–101 of The Monster Manual, which had specified May–September as the monsters' hibernation time.'

Em dash ( — ) Usage

The Em dash has the widest range of uses, but most commonly it is used to replace Parentheses (often referred to as 'brackets'), Colons and Commas in a sentence. The Em dash should be used without spaces on either side if you are writing fiction—however, some publications such as newspapers and magazines will go against this rule.

When used to replace Parentheses, Em dashes serve to deliver more emphasis on parenthetical text than would be otherwise expressed. Using Em dashes to replace commas will typically make a sentence easier to read—so this is a particularly handy technique if you have a sentence that seems too clunky. Em dashes can also be used in place of a Colon as a less formal way of drawing conclusion to a sentence.

For example, an Em dash could be used in the following sentence:

'But Sunny could see that this monster was very much alive, and very much awake—which, Sunny realised, was very bad news.'

Em dashes also serve a purpose at the end of interrupted speech. You can use one or two Em dashes (depending on personal preference) to portray when speech has been cut off.

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All together, now...

To bring this to a conclusion, here's a sentence including a Hyphen, En dash and an Em dash. See if you can spot the difference between each one:

'"Uh-oh," Sunny whimpered, and as the monster bent down and began to open its huge mouth—the stench of its bad breath even more disgusting than she remembered reading about on pages 33–34 of The Monster Manual—she closed her eyes and wailed as loud as she could, "Let me go, you big—!"'

...And that seems like an appropriate place to end the blog!

If you learned anything new, please consider hitting the heart button below to show your appreciation, or leave a comment to let me know what you thought! I hope the information included was useful to you. Don't forget to bookmark this page for future reference if it was a help—and if you know someone else who might benefit from reading this blog, please share the link!


I am a freelance editor and published writer offering friendly, affordable book editing services. From my base at home in the UK, or while over in the USA, I work with authors and publishers internationally. I'm a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.


Bryony Leah, freelance editor, freelance writer, affordable book editor, affordable book editing services, ebook editor, romance editor, fiction editor
Bryony Leah, freelance editor, freelance writer, affordable book editor, affordable book editing services, ebook editor, romance editor, fiction editor
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