Dashes are really handy items of punctuation. They can be used in place of commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons for emphasis and clarity. And like the three bears, they come in a trio of sizes—en dash, em dash, and swung dash (~)—which serves no discernable purpose. Not included in that trio is the hyphen.
Hyphens are shorter than dashes. They’re used to make compound words and to break a word at the end of a line of text. They’re not punctuation marks. Yet, there is an epidemic of hyphens masquerading as dashes-stopping readers in their tracks. Did the faux dash in the previous sentence give you pause?
These random, mid-sentence hyphens are wannabe em dashes—so named because they’re the width of a capital “M”. A meandering sentence, riddled with commas can benefit from an em dash or two. Consider:
Panhandlers manned every median, holding signs that itemized their plights, from lost jobs to bad luck to the meth lab exploding, turning forlorn eyes on captive drivers who waited, wishing the light would change.
Panhandlers manned every median, holding signs that itemized their plights—lost jobs, bad luck, meth lab explosions—turning forlorn eyes on captive drivers who waited, wishing the light would change.
Whether you’re using dashes to offset an example—as above and here—for emphasis, interjection, or to marshal a long list, use them judiciously. Just like commas, less is more. You can make an em dash on a Mac by pressing the option, shift, and hyphen keys at the same time. (In a pinch, two hyphens will suffice.)
The en dash is used to indicate a range of numbers or dates: Most readers will tire of the subject of dashes within one–two minutes. You will certainly impress some people if you use one, but ignorance of it won’t scupper your writing. You can make an en dash on a Mac by pressing the option and hyphen keys at the same time. The rest of the world can, and will, use a hyphen.