Explained: the difference between the em dash and en dash

There was an idyllic time in my life where I thought there was just one type of dash. It turns out that dash was, in fact, a hyphen. And what I thought was a hyphen was actually an en dash. And a long dash, the kind I’d seen in books, wasn’t a long hyphen but an em dash. All a bit much, isn’t it?

Well, I thought so. But the more I learned about them, the more I loved these different bits of punctuation and what they could do for my writing. Let’s break things down one bit at a time.

What is an em dash?

The main use of the em dash (—) is to add emphasis. It is the width of a capital letter ‘M’ and doesn’t need any spaces before or after it appears in a sentence, although you might come across some style guides that do require spaces.

You’ll find that it’s generally used to show parenthetical information—the kind that you’d put in parentheses or between a couple of commas. In dialogue, it would sound like a brief pause, just like when you use a comma. Check this out.

Example: He knocked sheepishly at the door. The flowers—the kind you buy when you’ve got some apologising to do—didn’t come cheap.

Versus: He knocked sheepishly at the door. The flowers (the kind you buy when you’ve got some apologising to do) didn’t come cheap.

Or even: He knocked sheepishly at the door. The flowers, the kind you buy when you’ve got some apologising to do, didn’t come cheap.

But that’s not all it does. This versatile piece of punctuation can also be used to:

Indicate a quick change in thought

You’ll mostly see this used in dialogue to show a sudden change in direction or train of thought.

Example: Where’s my—never mind, they were on my head.

Example: I’ll take the stairs—wait, no, the lift is coming.

Censor swear words

Want to keep things as PG as possible in your writing? Watch the em dash swoop in to save the day. Neater than using a row of asterisks, you can use two or more em dashes to stand in for swear words that might be a necessary part of your plot or characterisation.

Example: You’ve f——d this right up, haven’t you?

Example: You’ve f****d this right up, haven’t you?

Example: “Just p— off!” he spat. The room fell silent.

Example: “Just — off!” he spat. The room fell silent.

Make sense of a list

Say you’ve started a sentence with an independent clause (a clause that can stand alone as a complete sentence) and end it with a list. In this scenario, you’d use a colon just before the list, and the words preceding that will allow the reader to make sense of that list. But what happens if you wanted to start with the list? Compare the two examples below, then try writing a couple yourself until you’re satisfied.

Example: I tried every flavour of gelato they had: strawberry, chocolate, mango, mint, and then some.

Example: Strawberry, chocolate, mango, mint—I tried every flavour of gelato they had and then some.

Add clarification

No matter what you’re writing, you want your reader to stay engaged. One great way to do that is to minimise distractions in your writing; adding a sliver of detail to a sentence keeps things moving along and doesn’t send your reader off trying to figure out what’s going on. This extra information—an appositive, if you want to get fancy with it—should be relevant to your story or the purpose of the text. Otherwise, you might leave the reader wondering why you wasted their time with it.

Example: Hedonism—the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence—runs contrary to Plato’s philosophy.

Here, we’ve placed ‘the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence’ between two em dashes to briefly explain what hedonism means.

Example: That woman—the one with the red beret—I’ve seen her somewhere before.

Adding ‘the one with the red beret’ to this sentence could have a few different uses, depending on context. If we’re at a bar, and I’m trying to point out one woman out of twenty, then this extra detail will make things clearer to the person I’m speaking to. In creative writing, the fact that this woman is partial to a red beret might be an important part of the plot or characterisation. Is she French? Does she want to exude Frenchness? If so, why? Is red her lucky colour? The possibilities are endless.

Example: Talk to my colleague—Amy, not Rachel—if you need any help with the PR side of things.

Here, the speaker is pre-empting any possible confusion and offering a specific contact to help wit ha specific problem. Quite simple, but this sort of thing could come in handy if you’re trying to write natural-sounding dialogue.

Okay, but what does the en dash do?

I’m glad you asked. En dashes (–) are the width of a capital N and are used for a couple of different jobs ill-suited to the em dash, which we’ll take a closer look at below.

Number ranges and spans of time

In this context, en dashes take on the meaning of ‘through’ or ‘to’. It can be placed between two different dates, times, years, and numbers. Take a look:

Example: Your delivery time slot is 13:00–15:00.

Example: We need to read pages 80–120 before tomorrow’s lecture. Shall we grab a coffee first?

Example: 2020–2021 was a difficult financial year for the company, but we’ve made some adjustments and come out stronger on the other side.

Showing a connection between two words

You can use the en dash to indicate a connection between two words, even when they’re already hyphenated.

Example: The Booker Prize–winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, has made the longlist once again this year.

Example: I’m very interested in hearing your views on the pro-choice–anti-abortion issue.

A quick word about hyphens

We can’t forget about our reliable old friend, the hyphen. The humble hyphen (-) is shorter than the en dash and joins two words (or parts of words) together. It can be used in a compound modifier when that modifier comes before the word it’s affecting. Hyphens can also be used to deliberately denote separation between letters or numbers.

Example: I’m a twenty-something-year-old writer and editor, based in the North East of England.

Example: Applicants should provide a one-page cover letter along with their CV.

Example: It’s Kelly. That’s K-E-L-L-Y. That’s right!

Example: If you carry on this way it’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do you see that?

If you’ve found this blog useful, share it and leave a comment below if you’re feeling extra friendly. Here are a few resources for you just in case you’d like to do a little further reading (or listening) on the topic.

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