Editing Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes for Clearer and More Effective Business Writing

Based on our experience editing and proofreading many documents and publications, we have noticed that hyphens and dashes are commonly used incorrectly and inconsistently. In order to clear up the confusion, we’ll look at the hyphens and the different types of dashes to see how they should be used for more consistent and effective business writing.

–  The hyphen is found at the upper right of the keyboard between 0 and the equals sign.

‒  The en dash can be found by selecting Insert then Symbol in Word. You will find a selection of characters and symbols. The term En Dash will appear when you place the cursor over it.

—  The em dash is twice as long as the en dash and can be found by selecting Insert then Symbol.

Hyphens connect words that function together. In many cases, these are compound adjectives. For example, part-time work, eight-hour-day, 40-year-old man, well-known film, face-to-face meeting and 15-storey building. 

Hyphens are also used in other types of words to clarify meaning and prevent misreading. For example, pre-existing, re-enter, de-emphasise, de-ice, re-cover (cover again) and re-signed (signed again).

En dashes (also called en rules) are most often used to show spans of numbers, distance and time. For example, July–September quarter, 2014–2015 financial year, Sydney–Brisbane flight, pages 150–155.

Em dashes (also called em rules) are used to show a parenthetical statement, to introduce an explanation and to show a sudden change. For example:

Failing to plan for your taxation commitments—such as GST, BAS and income tax—can play havoc with your cash flow.

As the business owner, my goal is to develop long-term customers—and the only way to do this is to make sure you are completely satisfied with my service.

We are pleased to offer you a free professional photography session with a 14cm x 18cm desk-top portrait—valued at $99—for you to keep.

My work will show that people are fundamentally the same—sharing the same emotions and the same fundamental needs—and are bigger than their problems.

Here are a few examples of the types of errors and inconsistencies we find when editing business documents and publications:

July – September quarter (should be July–September quarter)

Part time work (should be part-time work)

Failing to plan for your taxation commitments – such as GST, BAS and income tax – can play havoc with your cash flow. (Should be em dashes as shown in the example above).

This summary of hyphens and dashes has only covered the basics of how they should be used correctly. For a more detailed explanation see the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (for Australian readers) and The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Style Guide (for US readers).