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Em Dash vs. En Dash (Differences, Grammar, Examples)

What’s the difference between the em dash and en dash? When do you use an en dash? And when do you use an em dash? These punctuation marks can get confusing. They look similar and are seen in common American English.

Em dash vs. en dash
Em dash vs. en dash

What’s the difference between the em dash and en dash?

Dashes have their own identity and panache. This category of punctuation marks breaks a sentence to make it a better read. Technically, there are several types of dashes, but the most common ones are em dash, en dash, and hyphens.

Em dasha long dash (—) used in punctuation.
En Dasha short dash (–) used in punctuation, in particular between figures to show a range (for example, 1939–45).

What is the em dash?

The em dash is also known as the common dash as it’s used the most. The name is because it’s approximately the width of the letter ‘M.’

As for the appearance, it may look like — or ‑- depending on the system you are using. But, the flat formula is Shift+Option+Minus (-) for Mac users, and Ctrl+Alt+Minus (-) for those using Windows-operated machines.

Uses of the em dash

Em dash functions as a colon, parenthesis, or comma. Writers use it to add extra information to their articles; its placement is usually between two parts of a sentence.

For example: My landlord—despite being aware of my financial strain—has increased my rent and several other expenses from this month.

Now, we can also write this particular sentence with spaces before and after the dash. Like this, My landlord — despite being aware of my financial strain — has increased my rent and several other expenses from this month.

But whatever the case, the styling should be consistent.

Now, what is the en dash?

En dash is the distant cousin of the em dash. And it is mainly used to replace from and to-, between-, and versus-.

For example: The boutique is closed October 21-October 31.

The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry was tastefully enjoyable.

As mentioned, the en dash is also applicable while denoting the ‘to’ between two places or capitalized names.

Like, the India-Pakistan border or, say, the ‘GoT’-‘LoTR’ fans.

Further, en dash comes in handy when forming complex compound adjectives. Complex compound adjectives are a combination of two or three adjectives.

For instance: Dexter Morgan was a meticulous and cold-blooded murderer. Here “cold-blooded” is a complex compound adjective.

Now, similar to the em dash, the en dash, too, derives its name because of its width is similar to the letter ‘N.’

Differences between an em dash and en dash

a)  Length: Em dash is longer than an en dash

b)  Applicability: Em dash can replace punctuation marks like parentheses, colons, commas, and semi-colons. Meanwhile, writers employ en dashes for signifying a range of dates and numbers, directions, partnerships, and oppositions.

So, what is a hyphen?

Well, a hyphen looks similar to a dash, but its functionality differs. It’s used to highlight the relationship between word elements, numbers, and compound words among each other. Hyphens do not offset or separate phrases and words but rather make connections.

Example 1: That was a very high-level meeting. (here, the word ‘level’ has been modified with a compound modifier, ‘high’)

Example 2: The mothers-in-law got together to prepare a feast for their daughters-in-law. (the principal words ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ are plural, so hyphens are used to compound the nouns).

Dashes in UK English

In UK English, mostly en dash and not em dash are used with space on either side.

So, the sentence “Milo—the dog—is different from Milo, the drink,” would read like “Milo – the dog – is different from Milo, the drink,” in UK English.

It may also be used at the start of a dialogue instead of a quotation mark. Like, —Is the target in sight?


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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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