Dashes of Drama and Utility

Mar 12, 2024 | Tips & Techniques Emails

Hyphens and Dashes

– – —

Look at these: – – —. In order, they are hyphen, en dash, em dash. The hyphen is next to the zero; the en dash (on my Mac) is Option+hyphen; the em dash is Shift+Option+hyphen.

I expect you know how to use hyphens. If not, read all about it in my blog*, “Lynn’s Law for Proper Hyphenation.”

En Dashes

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En dashes, the width of an n, are the middle child of horizontal punctuation marks. They tend to go unnoticed, overshadowed by the hardworking hyphen and the romantic em dash; they are seldom used and easily replaced. They show range:

            • Monday–Friday

            • 4–7 feet long

            • circa 205–293 A.D.

Use them to keep your lists, your how-tos, and your histories  in order. They are no-nonsense replacements for the words: to, until, between, and through.

Em Dashes

– – —

The value of the em dash, the width of an m, when writing—especially fiction—cannot be overstated (em dashes deserve hyperbole). They create pauses—intimating interruption, suspense, mystery, passion, confusion, conflict.

            Ah—what can’t em dashes do?

Want a parenthetical phrase without the jarring vertical wall of a parenthesis (see what I mean?); use an em dash. Their alluring horizontal form points the reader to the next phrase as if to say, “Keep reading Dear Reader.”

            All my best friends—Josh, Carrie, Jeremy, and Amy—surrounded me on my birthday.

Em dashes are the friendly and casual marks we use to indicate a pause, perhaps an about-face or a mere interruption—or something even more dramatic.

            Peter, it’s time—Put that cat down right now! You’re hurting it—It’s time for dinner. Wash your hands first.

            Solitary as always, Susannah closed her book, blew out the kerosene lamp, and walked toward— Crash! A looming shadow on the wall ahead—“Who’s there?” she screamed.

Oh my! Make the most of your em dashes. Punctuating has never been so much fun.


By Lynn Wilton

This article previously appeared on Lynn Wilton’s Medium site and is back linked to her blog at:

and is reformatted for publication and being sent as this month’s Writers’ Guild Tips & Techniques email with permission from the author.