Even for native speakers, writing in English can be a challenge. Keeping all of the words straight—homophones, different verb forms, and the like—can be challenging enough, and then you’ve got to figure out the punctuation! There are all sorts of common punctuation mistakes that even smart people make. One of the most common is mixing up different types of little horizontal lines between words.
Think about it—when do you use a hyphen vs. a dash? It’s difficult because they’re not something you use while speaking. Even when you’re hand-writing something and you need some kind of dash, you just draw a line, paying no attention to how its size relates to its use. But when you’re typing, it’s a nuanced puzzle of meanings and keystrokes.
What is an en dash?
Of the three similar types of punctuation—hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes—the en dash is generally the least common, and the most confusing. It’s the middle one of the three in terms of size—bigger than a hyphen, smaller than an em dash. To type it on a computer, you press Option/Alt plus the Hyphen key. Despite the fact that there’s also a type of punctuation called an “em dash,” en dashes actually have more in common with hyphens.
Em dash vs. en dash
There’s much more that could be written to fully explain the difference between hyphens and dashes. But the biggest difference between the em dash vs. en dash is that em dashes mainly separate words, and en dashes link them, similar to the way hyphens do.
Another em dash vs. en dash difference is the width. If you’re wondering, yes, these are types of punctuation that are named after letters. The en dash is so called because it’s the same width as a capital N in typeface. The em dash is—you guessed it—the width of a capital M. Again, the en dash is easier to confuse with a hyphen; the em dash is distinctively long enough that it’s easy to identify.
How do you use an en dash?
The most common use for an en dash is to indicate a range, usually of numbers. It can be thought of as replacing the word “to” or “through.” For instance, you could write: “The homework is to read pages 50–82.” or “The 1998–1999 season of Friends was my favorite.” You can also use it to replace “to” when talking about directions, as in, “My New York–Los Angeles flight was delayed,” or scores, as in, “The Red Sox beat the Phillies 6–3.” Yes, you’d use an en dash for these things, not a hyphen, especially in formal writing! (Note: If you use the word “from” to introduce these ranges, you need to use the word “to,” not an en dash. As in, “Season 5 of Friends ran from 1998 to 1999,” or “My flight from New York to Los Angeles was delayed.”)
Another way to use an en dash is to create complex compound adjectives. Hyphens already create compound adjectives, as in “red-haired” or “award-winning.” An en dash serves the purpose of a hyphen when one of the things you’re joining includes more than one word. This can happen when one of the things is a name, as in, “a Paul McCartney–style guitarist.” But any two words that are being linked with another need an en dash, not a hyphen: “Despite being in the second grade, your child exhibits fifth grade–level reading comprehension.”
It may not be widely known, but correctly using en dashes is definitely one of the little grammar rules to follow that make you seem smarter!