Dashing: Good-Looking or Leaving Quickly?

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
adjectives, etc.:

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