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Dashes (Types, How to Use Them, When to Use Them, Grammar Rules)

What are dashes? How do I use dashes in writing? What are the grammar rules that govern the various types of dashes? A dash is a small horizontal line that is used as a punctuation mark in the English language. It resembles the hyphen (a punctuation mark used to separate individual words) in appearance, although it is longer and occasionally higher than the baseline. It is used to denote a pause or a range and is used to divide word groups rather than individual words.

Dash types (em dash and en dash)

The different styles of dashes include the en dash “–”, the em dash “—”, and the horizontal bar “―”. The em dash “—” and the en dash “–” are the two most popular dash forms. These dashes differ not only in their length but also in the function they perform in a sentence. Authors can easily remember the difference between these dashes by remembering the length of the alphabets “M” and “N.”

Em dash
Em dash

Em dashes

An em dash, like a comma, a semicolon, a colon, parentheses, and an ellipsis, signifies additional emphasis, a break in the flow of thought, or a sudden shift in direction.

Em dashes, for example, can take the place of parentheses when there are numerous commas in the parenthetical phrase.

Em dash
Em dash

Consider the following example:

  • After a slight hesitation, Anna jumped up at the dog (or, rather, lunged at it).
  • After a slight hesitation, Anna jumped up at the dog—or, rather, lunged at it.

An author can use colons to begin a clause that expands on the text that came before it. Colons are much more formal when compared to dashes. Em dashes, however, are more forceful than colons. Authors typically use em dashes to convey strong emotion or to give their text a more informal tone.

Consider the following example:

  • Anna is terrified of two things: lizards and dancing.
  • Anna is terrified of two things—lizards and dancing.

Em dashes are used by transcriptionists and authors to substitute letters that are obscure, censored, or purposefully deleted. Em dashes show up in groups of two or three in these instances.

Consider the following example:

A former member of the disgraced team, — — —, provided his statement at court today.

At the end of the letter was a fading sentence: “Love you, Anna, from your de— —ted friend.”

“H— — always get on my nerves. All they know is how to cause trouble everywhere they go.”

Some rules for em dashes

There are some important rules that authors should be careful about when using dashes. These include:

Rule 1

Phrases and words between dashes typically do not belong in the subject.


Anna—and her lovely pooch—is always welcome here for the Christmas holidays.

Rule 2

When necessary, dashes take the place of mandatory punctuation.


Without dash: The woman from Manila, Philippines, arrived.

With dash: The woman—she was from Manila, Philippines—arrived.

Rule 3

Spaces around the dash are preferred by some authors and publishers.


Without space: Anna—and her lovely pooch—is always welcome here for the Christmas holidays.

With space: Anna — and her lovely pooch — is always welcome here for the Christmas holidays.

En dash
En dash

En dashes

An en dash is slightly shorter than an em dash in length. Despite having a similar appearance to em dashes, en dashes serve a very different purpose. Some common uses of the en dash include:

Indicate a link or connection

A connection or association between two words can be shown with an en dash. Authors typically use en dashes when employing a phrase with two words as a modifier. It is also used for connecting terms that have already been hyphenated. This method of dash usage results in compound adjectives.

Consider the following examples:
  • The pro-life–pro-choice debate always sees a high amount of emotional arguments and appeals and ends in heated exchanges.
  • The Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian is the keynote speaker for the symposium organized by the charity.

Indicate a range of numbers or span of time

En dashes are frequently used to denote time periods or numerical ranges. The en dash in such sentences is used to represent either “through” or “to.”

Consider the following example:
  • The parent-teacher meeting is scheduled to be conducted on Friday, 11:00-11:30 a.m.
  • During the years 2002-2010, Anna lived in Manhattan, New York.
  • We expect 25-50 celebrities at the gala.
  • The tutor asked me to read pages 10–25 as homework for today.
When to use an en dash
When to use an en dash
En dash vs. em dash
En dash vs. em dash

More punctuation marks (all 26 marks)

.PeriodI got this at the fair.
?Question markHow many trucks does he have?
!Exclamation pointWow! You’re a great rider.
,CommaI like the movie, but the color grading is odd to me.
:ColonHere are some fun ideas for the party: trivia questions, shuffle board, and more.
;SemicolonI’ll visit you once I’m done with work; that’s a promise.
HyphenI have double-life situations.
En dashHow long is a China-Russia fight?
Em dashThe dog—and I’m afraid of four-legged animals—was so adorable.
( )ParenthesesHis favorite team (Chicago Bulls) has a chance to win the title. 
[ ]Square bracketsThe AP writer said “[head] of baseball operations was disappointed.” 
{ }Curly bracketsThe colors {orange, green, lilac, blue} are for the garage.
< >Angle brackets 
“ ”Quotation marksBryan called it a “great situation.”
ApostropheSome of Susan’s clothes are missing.
/Slash or VirguleI’m ordering food/dessert/more.
… EllipsesAccording to the school the “president… was disappointed.”
*Asterisk*Data from The Economist
&AmpersandTiffany & Co.
 •Bullet point• Simple
• Great
• Awesome
#Pound symbol#1 selling
~TildeBryan owns ~10 pairs of shoes.
@At symbol[email protected]
^Caret symbol3^3 = 27
|Pipe symbol 


Is there any difference in the use of the em dash in American and British English?

In both American and British English, the em dash serves the same purpose. But there is a slight difference in the way the dash is represented in text. In British English, the dash is written as a single hyphen since most computer keyboards do not provide a separate dash.

In American English, the em dash is written with two consecutive hyphens. This is done to avoid any ambiguity that may crop up when a reader is perusing the text.

What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

A dash divides words into parenthetical phrases, whereas a hyphen links two or more words together. While dashes are separated using spaces, hyphens are not separated using them. A hyphen can be used to join compound words when it is grammatically appropriate to do so.

For example, consider the following:

  • Compound words that are hyphenated: sister-in-law, seven-year-old.
  • Spelled out fractions: three-fifths, one-third.
  • Compound adjectives: pet-friendly cafe, well-oiled tool.
How do I create an em dash on my computer?

In Unicode, the em dash is U+2014. If you are using em dashes in your content, don’t put a space between them. A spaced em dash creates a unique reading flow. Although, a spaced en dash is considered okay.

What is a double hyphen?

A double hyphen is not considered a dash. It is its own form of punctuation mark.


  1. Merriam Webster – dash – Definition
  2. Wikipedia – Dash
  3. Grammar Monster – Using Dashes
  4. Yourdictionary – 3 Types of Dashes and Correct Usage in Writing

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About the author

Dalia Y.: Dalia is an English Major and linguistics expert with an additional degree in Psychology. Dalia has featured articles on Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, Grammarly, and many more. She covers English, ESL, and all things grammar on GrammarBrain.

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