Punctuation: Dashes

February 2nd, 2021 by Jane Turner

Welcome to my new series on punctuation! Exciting, huh? Oh, believe me – I know. *nods sagely*



Today, we’re going to look at dashes – or, more specifically, the different types of dash and how they should be used according to New Hart’s Rules, the common Style Guide for writing in UK English. (Known as NHR.)

Also used in this post, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (or NODWE), and the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (NOSD). Together with NHR, these three references form the base guidelines to using UK English.

Dashes are incredibly useful in fiction and can be used many ways. Whatever your preference – as an author, you get the final say on stylistic decisions – be sure to note it on the Style Guide for your work.


Hang on – more than one dash?

Yes, you read right, there is more than one kind of dash. Indeed, there are three: the hyphen, the en rule, and the em rule.

(In US English, these are commonly referred to as the en dash and the em dash.)

Hyphenebook(damn auto format!) Trust me, hyphens are really short.

En rule  –

Em rule  —

They’re all different lengths and have different uses, as well as different rules governing their use.

The hyphen can be found on your keyboard, but you have to go into Word’s Insert tab and Special Characters for en and em rules.


The Hyphenebook

The hyphen is the most common dash, the one everyone knows. And there are two main uses for the hyphen:

Hard: to join words (or parts of words) together, e.g. anti-nuclear, second-rate, empty-handed. 

Soft: when a word is broken at the end of a line to avoid large gaps in the text. 

With hard hyphens, your go to resources are be NODWE for specifics and NHR for guidance. Just remember, like everything, that consistency is key. If you use air-stream in one paragraph, you can’t use airstream in the next! 

Soft hyphens will often be placed automatically by your software, but NOSD can give advice on where the hyphen works best.

Be sure to list your hyphenations in your Style Guide, so you (and your editor and proofreader) can keep track of your preferences.


The En Rule  –

So called because it is as long as a capital N, which was all important in the times of manual printing/printing presses.

The en rule is longer than a hyphen and half as long as an em rule, as you can see above.

Most commonly used with a space each side – as I’ve used here – it often replaces parentheses. (Though many bloggers use a hyphen for ease, the en dash is correct.)

It’s also used when;

  • referring to a range (Mon–Sat, 6.30–9.30, 1985–1990).
  • expressing a connection between words or people, where it can substitute for to or and (the author–editor relationship, the Dover–Calais ferry, the Lloyd–Johnson theory).
  • indicating missing letters (‘F – – – off!’ he screamed.)


The Em Rule  —

Yep, you guessed right – this one’s named for the length of a capital M.

Most US publishers use the em rule instead of an en rule—like this—for parentheses. You can do this too, but remember that it should be used ‘closed up’, i.e. no space between the word and the dash. A pair of dashes like this expresses a stronger break than a comma, and highlights the centre phrase better than brackets or parentheses.

In UK English, either en or em rules are fine for parenthetical dashes – it’s an author’s stylistic choice. (And should be noted on your Style Guide!)

There are a couple of other uses for em dashes;

  • A single em rule can be used instead of a semicolon, giving a more casual feel. (e.g. I didn’t grow up middle class—dad was a labourer.)
  • Use an em rule with spaces to show a missing word, and without spaces to show part of a missing word. (e.g. We were just arriving — when the Duke of F— disappeared.)
  • Use an em rule instead of an ellipsis to indicate dialogue trailing off or being cut off. (e.g. ‘But we agreed—’ or ‘There was an el—’)

And a couple of don’ts!

  • Don’t use other punctuation before a single one, or the first of a pair. (e.g. ?—he held his breath, simply looks a bit wrong, but The party lasted—we knew it would!—well into the small hours works absolutely fine.)
  • Avoid overuse. No more than one pair per sentence, and I’d go as far as say one pair per page! Too many can be distracting and disrupt a reader’s flow.



So, there you go. Short and sweet, dashes in a nutshell. 

And I heartily recommend NOSD and NODWE for writers, though you don’t really need NHR – your editor will have one!

Do GET IN TOUCH if you’d like a sample edit of your work, or you’d like to chat about what I can do for your business.


More posts on punctuation coming soon! (I know, you just can’t wait!)


Relax. Just write.

4 Responses to “Punctuation: Dashes”

  1. Regards for helping out, excellent information.

  2. Thank you so much for this, it was very helpful to learn about them. I usually use the N rule while writing but it’s great to know the differences!

  3. Thanks a bunch, I personally use the M rule—more often than the N 😁, I really have learnt a fortune here today.

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