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December 18, 2013

Chryse Wymer: Hyphens, Em Dashes, and En Dashes

Thank you so much, Donna Huber, for allowing me to guest post on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: em dashes and en dashes, em dashes in particular. Em dashes are my second-favorite punctuation mark because, like colons, they’re often feared by authors. Maybe it’s the names: colons, em dashes. It sounds a bit fancy.

This month, I’ve been hopping blog to blog to share my knowledge on the nuts and bolts of great writing. I am a copy editor, proofreader, and author—published both traditionally and independently. I’m also raffling off Amazon gift cards to help get your editing bookshelves filled. You can contact me at, or, for more information, visit: At the previous site, I’ll also be keeping a list of the blogs I’ve visited and the subject matter I’ve shared. The Amazon giveaway starts December 1st and ends January 1st.

Anyway, let’s just get to it.



The em-dash, which is as wide as the capital M, is used to mark an interruption in sentence structure. Typewriters create it with two hyphens ( -- ). Word-processing programs can place a true em dash. It is used for several purposes.

First, a pair of em dashes can be used to enclose a parenthetical remark (an aside such as this), or to mark the ending and the resumption of a statement.  E.g.: “The voice was quiet, somber—the way it’s supposed to be—but it was broad daylight.”

Second, it can be used in place of a colon, e.g.: “This person is . . . was . . . my son, and it ain’t right—none of it.”

My editing clients have frequently used commas in place of em dashes, often resulting in confusion and/or comma splices. That’s it. Let’s move on to the easier mark.


The en-dash is as wide as the capital letter N, and is distinct from the hyphen. It joins pairs or groups of words to show a range, and also indicates movement and tension (rather than cooperation and unity). It is often equivalent to to or versus <the 1914–1918 war> <the love–hate dichotomy> <the Tyson–Foreman match> <the Dallas–Toronto–Quebec route> 

The en-dash is also used for joint authors <the Stephen King–Peter Straub book>

Some editors, myself included, use an en-dash for a phrasal adjective in which the individual elements contain spaces or internal hyphens <a Pulitzer Prize–winning author> <pre–Revolutionary War times>. I prefer to use the en-dash in this way because it often helps to clarify in such situations. I’m all about clarity and consistency. 

Just like with the em-dash, the en-dash is commonly represented by a single hyphen in typewriting. Word-processing programs can insert a true en-dash.

Thank you for reading, and don’t forget to enter the Amazon giveaway before January 1st, 2014.

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Chryse Wymer is a freelance copy editor and proofreader whose main focus is on indie writers. Her clients have been well reviewed, and one was recently chosen as a top-five finalist in The Kindle Book Review's 2013 Best Indie Book Awards in his category: mystery/thriller. For some years, she has been particularly obsessed with William S. Burroughs’s writing, who happened to coin the term heavy metal ... her favorite music.
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The views, opinions, and beliefs of contributing writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Girl Who Reads. 

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  1. Oh my gosh!!! I've been using all these wrong! *face palms*