Today I Learned: The Difference Between Dashes


Did you know that there are multiple different kinds of dashes, and that they're different from hyphens?  I sort of did, but really, I didn't until my friend Andrea (I know!  Another Andrea!  And she's even better at being an Andrea than I am!) tweeted about "em dashes" today and I thought "whaaaaa?"

Turns out that when it comes to short lines between words in grammar, you may be using a hyphen, en dash, or em dash and not even know it.

In order of length and coolness:

The em dash is longer and by far the coolest.  It's the one that you would use two hyphens to create (--) and if you have a fancy word processor (read, pretty much any word processor) it'll combine them into one, long em dash.

Em dashes can be used to replace commas, parentheses, and colons, depending on how formal you want to be and how much attention you want to draw to the insertion.

En dashes are a little bit shorter and only averagely cool.  They are used for things like spans of time (1984-2015 -- that's the number of years I've been alive) or to show conflict or connection between two terms (the us-them dichotomy).

Hyphens are shortest and not too exciting.  Use them for compound words, or two or more words that, when combined, create an adjective (she's a simple-yet-opinionated child).

Grammar!  It's fun!

Learn more about hyphens, dashes, and other grammar things on this attractive and informative website, The Punctuation Guide.

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