The en dash is used inconsistently within lots of writing – regardless of how ‘professional’ the writers are.
The hyphen, em dash and en dash are everywhere, but most of us don’t know when or why to use them – and different writers use the dashes in different ways. Let’s figure this out!
What do they look like?
|–|| en dash (or ndash, en-dash or n-dash)|
|—||em dash (or mdash, em-dash or m-dash)|
Do the first two look the same to you? It’s because some devices display them inconsistently, when the characters sit all by themselves. On a phone, the examples above may look wrong. However, they will probably look different in the next example, with some words or numbers adjacent to them.
Let’s look at those dashes with some text:
| 11–25|| en-dash|
Let’s make that even more clear.
When should I use a hyphen, en dash or em dash?
- Indicates breaks within words that wrap at the end of a line
- Connects compounded words like “mass-produced” (Closed compound words like counterintuitive have no hyphen in modern English, except for uncommon combinations that are confusing or ambiguous without a hyphen.)
- Connects grouped numbers, like a phone number 555-860-5086
- The hyphen does not indicate a range of numbers, like a date range, which is the job of an en dash
- Joins numbers in a range, such as “1993–99” or “1200–1400 B.C.” or “pages 32–37” or open-ended ranges, like “1934–”
- Joins words that describe a range, like “July–October 2010”
- There’s a lot more you can do with the en dash – read more below under “break the rules”.
- Works better than commas to set apart a unique idea from the main clause of a sentence:
“Sometimes writing for money—rather than for art or pleasure—is really quite enjoyable.”
- Separates an inserted thought or clause from the main clause, such as:
“I can’t believe how pedantic Ken is about writing—doesn’t he have anything better to do?”
“Hunter strode into the room—was he mad?—and the family stopped and stared.”
“Computers make everyday punctuation—for reasons that we’ll discuss later—more precise yet more confusing.”
- Shows when dialogue has been interrupted:
“I reached in and pulled the spray can out of my backpack—” “In front of the police?”
Here’s another obscure, old-fashioned use for the m-dash: When letters are uncertain or missing from a word that you are quoting or reporting about, you insert two m-dashes where the unknown letters would be. For example:
“Using dashes is a bit of an ad——n [addiction?]”, said Jennifer.
Break the rules!
If you are writing formal documents or writing for publication, it’s best to use dashes correctly.
However… Some people prefer the way a “space-en-dash-space” looks. Sometimes when you use the em-dash, people say, “What is that? I don’t like that big long thing.” I’ve heard that from colleagues and managers. That’s okay – we can find a very good compromise.
Some well-trained technical writers think the n-dash is the only one to use.
Choosing between the en dash or em dash is not a big deal. In my writing (as a manager corresponding with government officials and politicians, and also as a marketer communicating with real people) I use ‘space-n-dash-space’ instead of the em-dash – just to keep everyone happy.
You can see this ‘wrong-en’ method used in countless websites, magazines and papers as a replacement for the m-dash.
If you use the ‘wrong-n’ method and use it consistently, it works fine and seems to keep the greatest number of people happy.
Can I use two hyphens instead of an em dash?
If you are writing a message to your friend on Instagram, yes!
If you are writing an email to your mom, yes!
If you are writing an article or essay or paper, no.
But in the latter case, you are probably using Word or another program that will automatically replace two hyphens with an em dash, so you’ll be okay. If you are on a phone, go to the punctuation menu, long-press the hyphen and voila – you can choose an em dash or the shorter en dash. (Click to read more about how to insert the en dash on your phone.)
What is the correct name? En dash, endash, en-dash or ndash?
“En dash” is the most common. Whether that is right or wrong is a matter of opinion.
How to spell the names of dashes is not agreed upon. But disagreement and inconsistency is not unusual in the English language! That’s okay.
Whether someone writes en dash, endash, n-dash or ndash, they are always spoken the same way and refer to the same thing.
How to type the en dash and em dash in Microsoft Word
Automatically created in Word when you type “something – something” (word-space-hyphen-space-word). It becomes “something – something”. See the difference?
Automatically created in Word when you type “something–something” (word-hyphen-hyphen-word). It becomes “something—something”.
Take control of your dashes in Microsoft Word!
- Link: See how to insert an n-dash or m-dash in Microsoft Word.
Can I insert an en-dash or em-dash on a phone? (or Twitter or Facebook?)
Yes! With a simple trick for touchscreen keyboards, it’s easy to use the n-dash and m-dash on a phone or tablet.
Yes! …write your post or tweet in Microsoft Word, then copy it and paste it into Twitter or Facebook when logged in on a computer. When you paste an n-dash or m-dash from Word, it will be an n-dash or m-dash in your tweet. Added bonus: When you post or tweet by pre-writing in Word, you can find spelling or grammar mistakes before you post. Drawback: Not convenient, especially if you’re using a phone or tablet.
Trivia about dashes, for writing geeks
Why don’t educated people use dashes correctly? Did we all skip the same grade-5 English class?
No. The problem is that printing presses, then typewriters, then computers, have changed how we use punctuation.
These dashes go back to an earlier era of printing. The n-dash is named for its width in print typesetting (when people lined up little metal blocks for each letter, which would press ink onto paper). The n-dash was about as wide as an upper-case N; the m-dash was as wide as an M. That’s how they got their names.
Later, in the days of the typewriter, there was only the hyphen; the typewriter keyboard had no keys or buttons for the n dash and m dash. Using a typewriter, you had to use two dashes for the m-dash and ‘space-hyphen-space’ as a rough replacement for the n-dash. But in books, magazines and other ‘proper’ printing, typesetters always used the ‘proper’ dashes.
The hyphen is still the only type of dash on a normal computer keyboard. However, computers let everyone use the n dash and m dash in their writing. We can all use dashes and other ‘non-basic’ punctuation just like a professional printing typesetter does. Programs like Word make this easy. (Professional designers and typesetting snobs think Word is awful, but it works very well for most people.)
There are even more names for the dashes. The en dash is also known as the en rule; the em dash as the em rule. This seems to be an even more old-fashioned way of referring to the dashes.
Why ‘rule’? Well, it’s not ‘rule’ like ‘law’, it’s ‘rule’ like ‘ruler’ or, ‘straight thing’.