Punctuation Talk: Hyphens vs. Em Dashes

copywriting-guide-hyphen-dashI can’t tell you how many times I hear that punctuation doesn’t matter in the world of novel writing, and how “an editor will fix all that.” Bah! While there is truth to the matter that grammar isn’t everything and that some people place too much importance on the grammar/punctuation end without focusing on the story’s plot, character arc, story arc, atmosphere, and all the other essentials of a novel, grammas IS something (Check out the discussion on it). In fact, it’s an author’s tools for clarity and fluidity, and how is that irrelevant?

Plus, it’s just something a true writer should take pride in (that doesn’t mean mistakes can’t be made, but be educated about your craft).

With that, I bring you the dash and the hyphen–two very different types of punctuation that a lot of folks don’t know a lick about. Let’s put the mystery to rest, shall we? For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the em dash (there is such a thing as an en dash, having to do with periods of time when you might otherwise use to, but we’ll put that aside for now. For more on em dashes vs. en dashes, check out Frank’s article).


For goodness sake, a hyphen is not a dash. First, it’s much shorter. Second, it is used in completely different ways. This gets tricky, but I’ll try to map it out as clear as possible.

  1. ADJECTIVES:  In most cases, you’ll want to use a hyphen between two or more adjectives when they come before a noun and act as a single idea. For instance, “The ten-year-old boy” as opposed to if they come after, in which case it would be, “The boy was twelve years old” (not hyphened).
  2. Keep in mind that some adjectives combine without a hyphen when Rule #1 applies. This is where the English language sometimes gets ridiculous, and you’re often just going to have to look the word up. For example, “The staff is full time” as opposed to “The fulltime staff…”
  3. ADVERBS:  The same rule of ADJECTIVES applies with adverbs with the exception of ly adverbs (i.e., “The well-lit room” and “The room was well lit” are both correct. However, you would say “The brightly lit room” without a hyphen between brightly and lit. Why? Because “brightly” is an adverb that ends with ‘ly.’)
  4. WORDS LINKED BY ONE IDEA:  In some cases, the word just has a hyphen…all the time, in fact. This is because the word is comprised of a list of words that are linked to express one idea. Examples are Mother-in-law, top-notch and X-ray.
  5. SUPERLATIVE ADJECTIVES:  Another tricky one, but bear with me. Basically, if you run into comparative adjectives, do NOT use a hyphen. Examples:  Better built house, more likely scenario. (The adjectives here are comparative because you can ask yourself, “better built than what?” or “more likely than what?”)
  6. NUMBERS:  Numbers consisting of two words use hyphens, such as twenty-three, forty-five, two-thirds. Generally, numbers in the hundreds don’t follow this as they’re more than two words (one hundred and five, two hundred and six).
  7. USE HYPHENS FOR CLARITY: In some cases, it makes sense to hyphen to distinguish words that are spelled similarly but have very different meanings. For instance, re-sign vs. resign (one means to quit; the other means to sign up again), or re-creation vs. recreation (one means to create again, while the other means to play casually).

There are other, subtler cases, but these are the most common. Hope that helps clear things up. If this isn’t something you’re comfortable with (maybe it scares you to death), don’t fret too much. The goal isn’t to be an expert necessarily, but to be aware of the basic rules. Let me know if you have questions :). I don’t know it all (by a lot), but I will do my very best to help.


In formal writing, em dashes should be use sparingly. However, they have more of a place in fiction writing where the goal is to bring out a narrative voice (not that they ought to be overused, mind you). In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons and parentheses to add emphasis, an interruption/pause, or an abrupt change of thought. Note that while hyphens are a single dash (-), emdashes are two simultaneous dashes (–). In most writing programs, like Microsoft Word, those double dashes will combine to make one, long em dash. If it doesn’t, two dashes are fine.


  • It was a Tuesday–the best day of the week–when my package arrived in the mail.
  • I had escaped certain death–or so I had thought.
  • It’s just that–oh, forget it.

Don’t forget to check out other writing/punctuation/grammar-related blog posts.


About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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7 Responses to Punctuation Talk: Hyphens vs. Em Dashes

  1. Frank says:

    Technically an em dash is twice as long as an en dash, and a hyphen is shorter still. I talk about it here:

    I’m increasing confused over the use of hyphens in compounds like ‘well-lit’… 😦

    • Right you are. I don’t think I made mention of the length of an en dash–was trying to avoid going into that at this point.

      Confused? No worries. I probably wasn’t clear. The rule for hyphens and adverbs is similar to adjectives: If two are linked and precede the noun they modify, add a hyphen. If they follow, don’t add the hyphen. (Precede the noun= “well-lit room”; Follow noun = “the room was well lit”). However, when the adverb ends with “ly”, this rule doesn’t apply and hyphens are not used in either case (The brightly lit room). Does that help?

      • Frank says:

        I go through phases where I over-think grammar and get confused… 🙂 Why, for example, should ‘well’ be treated differently from a -ly adverb? English is such an entertaining language…

      • Oh I’m with ya. English makes no sense half the time. I liken this to the fact that, over the years, it’s become such a melting pot of languages.

  2. Dyane says:

    Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    Hyphens and em dashes–goodness, the English language makes me crazy sometimes! Anyway, for those who are as confused as I sometimes get, take a look at this article. Thank God someone understands this stuff!

  3. Noelle says:

    Em dashes are my heroin. I can’t get enough of them.

    (Actually, that’s a lie, as you well know. There can, indeed, be too many em dashes. Just as I’ve probably used too many commas in this aside. Punctuation gives me a tic.)

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