Dashes (en and em), Hyphens, and More

Confusion about how to use dashes, hyphens, and slashes in APA style is confusing—it even can be confusing trying to distinguish these forms of punctuation! Using these correctly adds clarity to your writing. Below are links to some useful guides along with some of my own recommendations. First, however, let me distinguish between these forms of punctuation and how to create them in Microsoft Word.

A hyphen is the shorter than a dash, and it is generally used between two words with no space between the word and hyphen. Creating a hyphen in Word is relatively easy; you just click the hyphen key. Examples: being-in-the-world and middle-aged.

An en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen. It is the width of the letter “n,” thus it is an “en” dash. As with the hyphen, the en dash does not have a space between the words and the dash. Creating an en dash in Word is a bit different. You type the word, then a space, then a hyphen, then a space, then the word, then a space (word-space-hyphen-space-word-space). After you type the final space, Word will change the hyphen to an en dash. For APA style, you then have to remove the spaces between the words and the dash in most situations. Example: test–retest.

An em dash is slightly longer than an en dash—roughly the length of the letter “m.” To create an em dash in Word, you type the word, two hyphens, then the next word, then a space (word-hyphen-hyphen-word-space). When you create the space at the end, it will turn the two hyphens into an em dash. With the em dash, there should be no spaces between the word and the em dash. Example: An em dash is slightly longer than an en dash—roughly the length of the letter “m.”

The slash is more easily distinguished: “/”. This is entered easily through a keystroke. Example: and/or

Using these can be confusing at first, but there are some nice guides on the APA Style Blog that can easily clarify the usage of each. Below are links to two articles that should resolve most of the usage questions:

Using Em Dashes to Enhance Writing

The most common errors I see with these forms of punctuation are with the em dash. I see two types of errors: 1) using a hyphen or en dash where there should be an em dash and 2) not using the em dash where it could clarify writing.

Using a Hyphen or En Dash Where There Should be an Em Dash. This is pretty easily corrected through the links above; however, I regularly see writers use a hyphen or en dash—typically with a space between the word and the hyphen or en dash—where there should be an em dash. Replacing these with an em dash with no spacing between the em dash and the word is the easy correction.

Not Using the Em Dash Where it Could Clarify Writing. In my own writing, I have found that learning to use the em dash has helped to enhance clarity, flow, and readability of my writing. As noted in the link above, the primary use of the em dash is to set off a phrase at the end of the sentence with a single em dash or in the middle of a sentence with two em dashes. Often, commas can be used for the same purpose. However, if there are already a number of commons in the sentence, then the extra commas can be confusing. Replacing these with an em dash or em dashes improves the readability. Similarly, some will use parentheses where an em dash would be better used (see links below).

Another difference between the em dash and the comma is that the em dash draws more attention, whereas the comma is subtler. If there is an important phrase within a sentence that needs to be set off, then the em dash may be better than a comma. If the phrase is more subtle, you might prefer a comma.

Regardless, it is important to avoid overuse of commas and em dashes. As the APA Style Blog links note, too many em dashes can disrupt the flow of the writing. With commas, if you are need to use too many commas in a sentence, then your sentence is likely trying to do too much, which can cause confusion. It also can cause stress for your reader, which you do not want—particularly if it is your professor who is grading your paper. If you find that you are needing too many commas, or too many commas and em dashes, then you likely will improve clarity and readability by breaking the sentence into two sentences or reworking so that fewer commas and em dashes are needed. While some believe that writing as confusing as possible makes you sound more scholarly, this rarely is the case. Your readers typically will prefer clarity and readability over confusion.

Here are some guides that can help distinguish between the use of dashes, parentheses, commas, colons, and more. However, keep in mind that these are general writing sources and there may be some slight differences with APA style.

Conclusion

In closing, learning to use dashes, hyphens, slashes, colons, semi-colons, and other punctuation well can greatly improve the readability and clarity of your writing as well as creating a more literary feel. If you want to be a good writer, it is worth the effort to spend the time learning how to use these correctly.


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