Hyphen, en-dash and em-dash

Getting it right

Hyphen (-)

This is the smallest (and trickiest) of the dashes. Its main use is to join two (or more) words together.

In compounds

A compound is two or more words joined together to make one unit. For example:

  • twenty-one
  • family-friendly
  • warm-blooded
  • back-to-back
  • cut-and-come-again.

Some compounds used to be hyphenated and now generally are not, e.g. hopscotch (hop-scotch), sitting room (sitting-room).

Some compounds may or may not be hyphenated. For example:

  • cut-throat or cutthroat
  • papier-mâché or papier mâché
  • by-law or bylaw.

Whichever form you use, be consistent. Tip: For each piece of writing, pick a dictionary and stick to their style for spellings.

To avoid confusion

Use the hyphen when it would help to avoid confusion. For example:

  • Tom recovered his table. (Tom got back his table.)
  • Tom re-covered his table. (Tom covered his table again.)

  • Lucy put the pan on the back burner. (Lucy used the rear of the hob.)
  • Lucy put the pan on the back-burner. (Lucy would think about the pan later.)

  • Ben picked up the hot water tank. (Ben collected the stolen water tank. / Ben collected the water tank that was hot to touch.)
  • Ben picked up the hot-water tank. (Ben collected the tank that would be used for storing hot water.)

Avoiding confusion in compound modifiers is important, too:

  • The suspect was wearing a light blue jacket.
  • The suspect was wearing a light-blue jacket.

Should we apprehend someone wearing a summer jacket that is blue, or one that is wearing a pale blue jacket of any weight?

If it is a matter of choice (rather than rule) that you use a hyphen, consider whether the meaning is clear without it. If the meaning is clear without it, but readers will have to work it out for themselves or will stumble while they sort it out, then use the hyphen. Sometimes the best option is to rewrite the sentence so that it doesn't need the compound. For example:

  • At our meeting we argued that the team needs more experienced staff. (More staff who are experienced.)
  • At our meeting we argued that the team needs more-experienced staff. (Same number of staff but with more experience.)
  • At our meeting we argued that the team needs staff who are more experienced.

Compound modifiers

Adjectives modify nouns. Compound adjectives are two (or more) words that when joined make an adjective. When they come immediately before the noun (i.e. they are attributive) they are called compound modifiers and usually have a hyphen. For example:

  • Dan painted the sitting-room door.
  • She was a well-known author.
  • I went down a one-way street.
  • He thought we were having a long-term relationship.
  • I was given an ex-gratia payment.
  • Before I can comment, I need up-to-date figures.

But the hyphen is not used if the words are written after the noun. For example:

  • Dan painted the door of the sitting room.
  • As an author she was well known.
  • The street was one way.
  • I never promised that the relationship would be long term.
  • All payments were ex gratia.
  • This is a true reflection because the figures are up to date.

With ages

If an age is being used as an adjective or noun, use a hyphen. For example:

  • Ten-year-old James enjoyed this book.
  • We rescued a two-year-old Great Dane.
  • We are expecting a high price for this rare seventy-eight-year-old book.
  • We plan to buy that rare 78-year-old book.
  • The one-hundred-year-old man climbed out of the window.

Use hyphens even if the noun is implied. For example:

  • He has an advanced reading age for a ten-year-old. (“child” implied)
  • We rescued him as a two-year-old.
  • He is in great health for a ninety-six-year-old.

If the age comes after the noun, the hyphen is not needed because it is not directly modifying the noun. For example:

  • James is ten years old.
  • The Great Dane is now four years old.
  • Jenny didn’t start to walk until she was 36 months old.
  • At ninety-six years old, Edward still does the crossword every day.
  • The man was one hundred years old when he climbed out of the window. (Note that one hundred is not hyphenated.)

With prefixes

A prefix is something added before the root of a word, e.g. pre, post, un, re, mid. Sometimes hyphens are used, sometimes not. They tend not to be except to avoid confusion or to aid reading. For example:

  • re-cover/recover (cover again or get back?)
  • pre-agreed (is easier to read than preagreed)
  • co-own (is easier to read than coown)
  • post-operative

The ex- prefix is usually not hyphenated in words that are common (exasperate, extol, exclude), but they usually are with nouns to denote “once was”. For example:

  • ex-wife
  • ex-politician

Note that US spelling is losing the prefix hyphen more quickly than British spelling, so check with your dictionaries, set a style and be consistent.

Always use the hyphen with a prefix when it is preceding a capital letter or a number. For example:

  • The books were pre-Victorian.
  • These were my partying days pre-David.
  • I much prefer pre-1970s music.
  • Things changed post-European elections.
  • Life in post-Roman Britain wasn’t easy.

If the prefix is added to a hyphenated compound word, you still need the hyphen. For example:

  • He used to go there in his pre-right-wing opposition days.
  • I rang my ex-mother-in-law.

If the compound is made up of two words with a space instead of a hyphen, then the space is changed to a hyphen. For example:

  • She had always been pro-fox-hunting, but after seeing the kill, Jane resolved to join the anti-blood-sports movement.

Double-barrelled names

Some names are hyphenated but others not. Always follow the individual’s own spelling. For example:

  • William Fox-Pitt
  • Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn
  • Helen Bonham Carter

Joining letter and words

For example:

  • V-neck jumper
  • X-ray
  • T-shirt

Suspended hyphens

When several words are modifying the same noun, there is no need to write the common word each time. For example:

  • We have a number of one-, two- and three-bedroom properties for sale.
  • This was the case in pre- and post-war Britain.
  • We interviewed them as 25-, 30-, 35- and 40-year-olds.

To show word division at the end of a line

To avoid big gaps between words in typesetting, a word may be split over two lines (word division). Wherever possible, this should be avoided, but where it has to be done, the word is split using a hyphen. For example:

  • The new designs incorporated improve-
    ments suggested by users of the device.

For more information on splitting words, see Word division.

With adverbs

A hyphen is not needed with an -ly adverb. For example:

  • Her casually dressed mother picked her up.
  • The severely lame dog made no fuss.

The hyphen is used with -ly adjectives. For example:

  • family-oriented pub
  • family-owned business.

Electronic e

The shortened electronic mail, electronic book and so on used to all use the hyphen. With increased use, hyphens in some forms are being left out. So generally we have the following:

  • email
  • ebook
  • e-commerce
  • e-cigarette

Choose or follow a style and be consistent.

En-dash (–)

An en-dash is the middle-length dash. (It used to be the same length as the width of the letter n, but that is not always the case with modern fonts.) It may be:

  • closed
  • open.

Closed en-dash

This means there is no space either side of the dash.

In ranges of dates and numbers

For example:

  • The 2014–2015 accounting year was our best yet.
  • The topic is covered on pages 212–25.
  • The surgery will be open 10.30 a.m.–2.15 p.m.
  • The class is open to children aged 8–14.
  • The gardens will be closed November–March.
To represent connection

For example:

  • The Briggs–Myers Type Indicator (a partnership)
  • The Smith–Chamberlain report (a partnership)
  • The north–south footpath crosses the east–west path at the bridge. (direction)
  • The Rosslare–Fishguard ferry crossing. (terminal points on a route)
  • The England–Ireland match. (versus)

Be careful with the closed en-dash: the Mitchell-Kingston report has been written by one person with the surname Mitchell-Kingston; the Mitchell–Kingston report has been written by two people (Mitchell and Kingston) working collaboratively.

The spaced en-dash

This means there is a space either side of the dash. It is punctuation. It is used instead of commas or parentheses as an aside to the main text, when it must be used in pairs. It is used when the separation is slightly more marked than with commas, but less so than with parentheses. For example:

  • They worked together – on and off – for nearly forty years.
  • I can appreciate the conflict – wanting to follow her heart, but needing to listen to her head – but her reaction was too extreme.

It can be used as a less formal way of introducing an explanation of the first part of the sentence (where more formally a colon might be used). For example:

  • I liked this book – it is well written, although the torture scenes are toe-curlingly explicit.

It can be used to insert thoughts or ideas not essential to the sentence. For example:

  • It was a great idea – I mean, what’s not to like about going out for tea and cake? – but he hadn’t factored in how long it would take to get there.

It can be used in speech to show a sentence is broken off (speech that trails away ends with the ellipsis [...]). For example:

  • “I was saying to Julie just on Monday –” I remembered too late Karen wasn’t to know I had met up with Julie.
  • “Do you remember when we went to Croy–” Damn, I went there with Michael, not Geoff.

The spaced en-dash is used in UK and Ireland, but it is substituted with the em-dash for US style.

The em-dash (—)

This is the longest of the three marks. It used to be the same length as the width of the letter m, but is not necessarily that length with modern fonts.

It is used more in the US than in the UK and Ireland, but is used in the same way as a spaced en-dash (see above). It is always used closed up (with no space either side).

Typing dashes


On a Mac: option + hyphen

Word on a PC: -- (hyphen hyphen) followed by a space or Enter will automatically change to an en-dash; it can be picked from Insert > Symbol; Ctrl + minus on the numeric keypad; alt + 0150 on the numeric keypad (note: this doesn’t work by using the number keys above the letters on the main keyboard).

The HTML value to use on web pages (and on some ebook pages) is –.


On a Mac: shift + option + minus (on the numeric keypad).

Word on a PC: -- (hyphen hyphen) with no spaces will automatically change to an em-dash; it can be picked from Insert > Symbol; Ctrl + ­alt + minus on the numeric keypad; alt + 0151 on the numeric keypad.

The HTML value to use on web pages (and on some ebook pages) is —.