Lesson #162: All About Hyphens and Dashes (in UK and US English)

​Nearly everyone knows about – even if they have not read – Jane Austen’s famous novels: Pride and Prejudice (1813), Sense and Sensibility (1811), Persuasion (1818)and Emma (1815), not to mention Mansfield Park (1814)and Northanger Abbey (1817)📚

But most people, including native English speakers, are less familiar with Austen’s earlier (or unpublished) writings. Works like The Watsons (c. 1803-4), Lady Susan (c. 1805), and Sanditon (1817)were begun many years before some of her more famous works, but because they were never completed in her lifetime, remained unpublished for about a hundred years. 📜

In reading The Watsons from my Penguin Classics edition (edited by Margaret Drabble, 2003), it was interesting to notice the reappearance in this short work of some of Austen’s regular themes, plot lines, and style.

But one thing did strike me as very different: Austen’s abundant use of dashes!

Consider the following portion:

📘 A sigh accompanied these words, which Emma respected in silence – but her sister, after a short pause, went on – ‘You will naturally ask why it did not take place, and why he is married to another woman, while I am still single. – But you must ask him – not me – you must ask Penelope. – Yes, Emma, Penelope was at the bottom of it all. – She thinks everything fair for a husband. I trusted her: she set him against me, with a view of gaining him herself, and it ended in his discontinuing his visits, and, soon after, marrying somebody else. – Penelope makes light of her conduct, but I think such treachery very bad. It has been the ruin of my happiness. I shall never love any man as I loved Purvis. I do not think Tom Musgrave should be named with him in the same day.’

– Jane Austen, The Watsons (c. 1803-4)

Depending on which edited version of The Watsons you pick up – for example, if you buy the Penguin Classics edition that I have, or if you consult instead the free online version on Gutenberg.org – you will find differences in the punctuation, especially Austen’s use of dashes (which are mostly left out of the free versions online).

✍️ This is because we tend not to use them as excessively as Austen did in her work. Since her time, some clear guidelines have been established on the three different dashes and how to use them (these are explained below). Because Austen’s manuscript draft of The Watsons was never completed, it was never finally edited for publication; so it is quite possible that Austen would have edited some of her dashes on second thought, as she surely did in her more famous published classics.

🖋️ It shows the value of writing and rewriting whatever we would like to write well – something that Austen was fully aware of!

That said, there is a good lesson for us here on the differences between hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes.

👉 Do you know the differences between them?

A hyphen looks like this-

An en-dash looks like this –

An em-dash looks like this ­­—

Tip: the ‘en-dash’ is about the length of the letter ‘n’, whereas the ‘em-dash’ is about the length of the letter ‘m’.


📝 Hyphens are perhaps the easiest to distinguish. Not only are they the shortest, but their usage is unique: they appear in compound words (e.g. mother-in-law) or to indicate that a word has been split over a line break. There are no spaces on either side of the hyphen, so you never see ‘mother – in – law’ in English.

There even is a verb to describe the insertion of this punctuation mark: to hyphenate.

Here are some common examples of hyphenated words in English:

  • Up-to-date
  • Thirty-two
  • Check-in
  • Long-term
  • Over-the-counter


📝 An en-dash,by contrast, is a punctuation mark that signals a pause that is shorter than a semicolon (; ) and longer than a comma in British English. You can use it instead of a comma, a semicolon, or a full stop / period, especially when the sentence is flowing on. Try to picture how Austen’s en-dashes below could be replaced by a comma, semicolon, or a full stop:

📘 ‘ … A heart wounded like yours can have little inclination for matrimony.’ 

‘Not much, indeed – but you know we must marry. – I could do very well single for my own part – A little company, and a pleasant ball now and then, would be enough for me, if one could be young for ever …’

– Jane Austen, The Watsons

📝 You will also find en-dashes functioning sometimes as brackets, when you have a short clause in the middle of the sentence that you want to distinguish from the rest. Take these lines as examples of this (italics mine, for emphasis):

📘 ‘… Miss Emma Watson puts me very much in mind of her eldest sister, and sometimes I see a look of Miss Penelope – and once or twice there has been a glance of Mr. Robert – but I cannot perceive any likeness to Mr. Samuel.’

Among these was Mr. Howard – his sister leaning on his arm – and no sooner were they within reach of Emma, than Mrs. Blake, calling her notice by a friendly touch, said, ‘Your goodness to Charles, my dear Miss Watson, brings all his family upon you. Give me leave to introduce my brother – Mr Howard.’

– Jane Austen, The Watsons

📝 En-dashes are also used to highlight different voices in a dialogue (especially in more classic literature):

📘 ‘That he would be handsome even, though he were not a lord – and perhaps – better bred; more desirous of pleasing, and showing himself pleased in a right place. –’

‘Upon my word, you are severe upon my friend! – I assure you Lord Osborne is a very good fellow. –’

‘I do not dispute his virtues – but I do not like his careless air. –’

– Jane Austen, The Watsons


📝 An em-dash is mostly used in American English to perform all the functions that an en-dash has in British English.

That said, em-dashes are occasionally used in British English too, but with a different function than the Americans use them.

📝 British English em-dashes are used to indicate interrupted dialogue, being placed at the end of the speech that was cut short, as in Mr Edwards’ one below:

📘 ‘Well, Mary, I bring you good news. – The Osbornes will certainly be at the ball to-night. – Horses for two carriages are ordered from the ‘White Hart’, to be at Osborne Castle by nine—’

‘I am glad of it’ –  observed Mrs. Edwards …

– Jane Austen, The Watsons

📝 You will also notice that em-dashes do not have a space on either side of them, as does the en-dash.

To conclude this lesson – which has been challenging since we turned to an unedited manuscript for our illustrations! – I would like to leave the final words to Margaret Drabble. She is the editor of the Penguin Classic’s edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. Her helpful notes explain both Austen’s likely reasons for using these punctuation marks, and how Drabble, as a modern editor, changed some of them to align with current English practice.

‘The punctuation presented the greatest [editorial] problem of all. The manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon are highly irregular – some speeches appear in inverted commas, some do not, some of her dashes clearly indicate a paragraph break, whereas others clearly do not. … All the rest of her [Austen’s] punctuation, with its numerous dashes and oddities, is her own. Obviously one could have tidied it up more, and she would probably have done so herself for publication, or a printer would have done it for her, but there would have been a risk in some instances of losing both her sense and her flavour. One of the most remarkable features of Sanditon is its difference in style from earlier works, and the number of dashes which appear in it may have been intentional rather than the effect of fast or unrevised writing.’

– Margaret Drabble, ‘A Note on the Text’, pp. 37-39 in Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen (Penguin Books, London: 2003)

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)