M dashes, N dashes, and hyphens have caused a wave of confusion in many people’s worlds, so I’m here to help them and you find meaning in this chaos.
M dashes are typically used to set off words or phrases: to show a break in thought, to contain an explanatory phrase, or to add something to the end — as I’ve done in this sentence. Keep in mind that if you delete the phrase inside the M dash, the rest of the sentence should flow as a sentence and be grammatically pleasing to my ears:
I have lived in Chicago — it’s hard to believe — for almost 20 years.
All of my favorite foods — salmon, fruit, vegetables, salad — were on the table.
N dashes, smaller than M dashes, are used to show a range between numbers and to indicate that the words connected by the N dash should be seen as a unit:
She was probably 35–40 years old.
My birthday lasts from November 1–30.
This is a New York City–based problem. (Use an N dash here, not a hyphen; if you use a hyphen, it’s a “city-based problem.” The N dash shows that “New York City” is all part of the hyphenated phrase.)
Hyphens are often used to split words by syllables, to join elements, to join
According to East of Eden’s intro, John Steinbeck grew up in an agricultural valley.
He is a 25-year-old man.
This is a long-term assignment.
Time to dash.
My English Quarters
Hallie Belt, M.A. and B.A., English