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The differences between em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens

One of the most common problems I encounter is the improper use of dashes and hyphens. Here’s a quick reference adapted from a presentation on grammar I gave at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu when I was an editor there on the Commercial Market Strategies (CMS) project:

  • Em dash — (hold ALT and type 0, 1, 5, 1 in Microsoft Word on a PC, also accessible from the Insert > Symbol > font (normal text) menu). Denotes a sudden break in thought or emphasis.
  • En dash — (hold ALT and type 0, 1, 5, 0 in Microsoft Word on a PC, also accessible from the Insert > Symbol > font (normal text) menu). Denotes a range, often replacing the word “to.”
  • Hyphen – (the key next to “0” on most keyboards). Connects compound words. (Yes, I realize there’s no difference between the symbol for the en dash and hyphen in this entry; it’s a quirk in HTML.)

(Because of a glitch in the Safari and Firefox browsers, the sizes of the en dash and hyphen may appear incorrectly on your screen; the em dash is the larger of the two.)

Example: Tax-preparation services will be held March 10–19—what a thrill that will be!

Also, these rules are per The Chicago Manual of Style. For more information, check out its Q&A on hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes or Wikipedia’s entry on dashes.

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