When making a list of keyboard replacement shortcuts for common emojis, math symbols and unicode symbols I wanted to add em and en dashes but I realized I didn’t exactly know the usage difference—but you’ll see how dramatic of a difference this knowledge makes 😅 (;sweat).

Em DashEn DashHyphen
UsageIndicates a break or interruption in a sentence.- to connect items, such as numbers or ranges.
- to replace a hyphen in compound adjectives when at least one of the elements is a two-word compound.
Joins words or parts of words.
Example“She was running late — she forgot her keys.”“Pages 10–15 are missing from the document.”
“the post–Cold War era”
NotesTyp. replaced by two dashes -- in word processing softwareRequires manually inserting a special characterCan replace en-dash in things such as ranges since it is the default in word processors

Note the provision or lack of spaces around the em dash is up to the publisher.

Common mistakes

  • the en dash should be used for connecting ranges such as pp. 10–15 — the problem is that compound words (“a baker-owner”) use hyphens, so it is difficult to get this to autocorrect
  • compound words use hyphens (“a baker-owner”) but the en dash should replace a hyphen in compound adjectives when one of the elements is a two word compound (“the post–Cold War era”)

Em dashes have a surprising amount of uses

Em dashes are used in place of commas or parentheses to emphasize or draw attention to parenthetical or amplifying material. In this particular task, em dashes occupy a kind of middle ground among the three: when commas do the job, the material is most closely related to what’s around it, and when parentheses do the job, the material is most distantly related to what’s around it; when dashes do the job the material is somewhere in the middle.

There is a surprising amount of usage—I guess this is why word processors default to replacing double hyphens with em and not en dashes:

  • to set off or introduce defining phrases and lists

A regular selection of three kinds of croissants—plain, almond, and chocolate—was heartening, both Mabel and Harry agreed.

  • as a more dramatic semicolon or colon to link clauses

Harry would never forget the Tuesday that Mabel called him from the bakery, her voice brimming with excitement—the bakery had added cheese Danishes to its selection.

  • to set off illustrative or amplifying material introduced by such phrases as for example, namely, and that is, when the break in continuity is greater than that shown by a comma, or when the dash would clarify the sentence structure better than a comma

The bakery was truly phenomenal. Although they did miss the mark somewhat with the pineapple upside-down cake Mabel ordered—that is, the cake had clearly been baked right-side up.

  • to introduce a summary statement

Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, snickerdoodle, both macarons and macaroons—the panoply of cookie varieties was impressive as well.

  • as attribution

“One cannot underestimate the effect a good bakery can have on a person’s well-being.” —Mabel the Cat, The Websterburg Reporter

  • as parenthetical material inside parentheses

The bakery’s reputation for scrumptious goods mbrosial, even—each item was surely fit for gods) spread far and wide.