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Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: Quick Tips for Using Horizontal Lines

When it comes to marketing and sales content, horizontal lines can be valuable tools for connecting ideas, highlighting relationships, and emphasizing messages. However, the rules for their usage can be confusing and even contradictory among style guides, leading many writers to overuse or underuse these important punctuation marks.

No more. This week we’re discussing the most common uses of three horizontal lines: hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—). We’ll also touch on some handy tips for using them in ways that improve clarity and persuasiveness. On to the list!

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes

1. Hyphen: The Idea Connector

The hyphen, the shortest of the three horizontal lines, connects two words that function together as a single idea or joint modifier. Seems obvious, but we regularly see professionals incorrectly remove or include hyphens, thereby changing the meaning of an entire phrase, sentence, or document!

Consider the phrases little-used equipment and well-trained professional. If we remove the hyphens, do the meanings change? You bet. So, when editing your content, be sure that hyphens are used to clarify certain compound nouns and modifiers.

Additional Examples:

  • All-consuming importance

  • Three-year-old projects

  • Short-and long-term objectives

  • Cross-disciplinary skills

  • High-level explanation

Determining whether to use a hyphen can be a tricky affair, especially since guidance for hyphenation varies among many of the most commonly used style guides. For example, while the Associated Press Stylebook recommends words such as carry-over, change-up, login, and spinoff, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends carryover, changeup, log-in, and spin-off.

We recommend consulting your organization’s style guide of choice for case-by-case direction. And when in doubt, don’t hesitate to add a hyphen if it will prevent possible confusion.

Tip for Remembering Usage: This shortest horizontal line brings words closest together, hence its function of denoting words that work together. It is formed by pressing the hyphen key (to the immediate right of the “0” key).

2. En Dash: The Distance Marker

The en dash, named because its length is roughly that of the letter n, is frequently used to specify a range between two things (e.g., time, date, page number) when you might otherwise use to.


  • 15–20 percent savings

  • 2015–2017 report

  • 8–10 years

En dashes have many other, less common uses. For example, they can be used to replace versus (e.g., the Rational–Emotional debate), signal an equal pairing (e.g., the Johnson–Smith white paper), combine an open compound, or link a prefix to a proper open compound noun.

Consider the phrase pre–Internet of Things. The en dash is necessary to connect pre to the full open compound Internet of Things, thereby avoiding the confusion that may arise if a hyphen was used instead.

Tip for Remembering Usage: To form an en dash with most PCs, hold down the Control­­ and numerical hyphen keys (Ctrl + numerical hyphen). Alternatively, hold down the Alt key while typing “0150” on the numerical pad (Alt + 0150).

3. Em Dash: The Emphasis Maker

The em dash, named because its length is roughly that of the letter m, may be used to replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

Em dashes are particularly useful in marketing and sales content for adding emphasis to a compelling fact or differentiator. Also, as shown in the first example below, they can improve clarity when a parenthetical phrase contains internal commas.


  • As companies reduce advertising spend, they are pushing agencies to do more—build brand, attract customers, and adjust to digital media trends—with less.

  • This approach will yield improved efficiency and cost savings—without compromising effectiveness.

  • Companies have a tall order to overcome market challenges—all while sales are dropping.

While there are many possible uses of the em dash, we’re going to finish up this section instead with a note about restraint.

When developing persuasive content, it can be tempting to lean on em dashes to emphasize your key points. Unfortunately, much like graphic elements, em dashes are effective in moderation but overpowering when used excessively. So, as part of your content review process, check for overuse and replace with commas, colons, semicolons, or parentheses, as necessary.

Tip for Remembering Usage: To form an em dash with most PCs, hold down the Control, Alt, and numerical hyphen keys (Ctrl + Alt + numerical hyphen). Alternatively, hold down the Alt key while typing “0151” on the numerical pad (Alt + 0151).

A Final Note on Hyphens and Dashes: There are lots of blogs out there dedicated to grammar. This isn't one of them. We mainly focus on topics related to persuasive marketing and proposal writing, so if you’re looking for a more comprehensive breakdown of all things grammar, please check out our Resource Library of recommended blogs, such as Grammar Girl.

Shameless Plug Alert: A great way to ensure you have clear, correct, and concise sales and marketing content is by hiring a professional editor, writer, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Check out our website and contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.

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