January 23, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 3

Today, we’ll take a short look at en dashes and em dashes, showing the difference between them and how to use them properly. You can check out the earlier Back to Basics posts by clicking through the archives. I’ll go into hyphens and the other types of dashes (figure dash, horizontal bar, and swung dash) in the next post.


A dash is one of several kinds of punctuation mark, similar to hyphens, but differ from them in length, and they serve different functions. The most common dashes are the en dash and em dash. It should be noted that different manuals of style use different rules for the various dashes. If you’re unsure which one to use, especially in an academic paper or non-fiction work, be sure to check the manual of style attributed to your topic or field. I also want to point out that in the cases of dashes, if you are submitting manuscripts or articles to agents or editors, the misuse of the dash is not going to be as big a deal as most other punctuation. Not everyone knows the differences between dashes or knows the keystrokes, and professionals understand this, but it is important not to use a hyphen when you should have used a dash.

En Dash:

The en dash (–) is equal in length to the width of the upper-case letter N. It is commonly used to indicate a range of values with clear boundaries, to contrast values, illustrate a relationship between two things, between attributive compounds, and as parenthetical equivalents. To create an en dash in a word processor, you must type a character, space, use the - key, space, and type another character. For example, a - b, which should correct to a – b. Or, you can press CTRL+Numerical Minus (the one on the number pad), pointed out by Huntress in the comments below (thank you!).

Wikipedia shows that there is no space between each value and the en dash, but as you might have figured with the figure dash, it’s rather annoying keying the dash and then removing the spaces. So, when I use the en dash, I leave the spaces. For continuity’s sake, however, I’ve removed the spaces in my examples. To create an en dash, follow the same procedure as the figure dash.

Range of Values:

Use an en dash between dates, times, or numbers.

10:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.
Pages 9–22

Relationships and Connections:

The en dash can show a relationship between two things.

The final score was 23–20, in favor of the Patriots.
Brother–sister relationship
The homecoming committee voted 4–1 against my idea for the parade.
Bose–Einstein statistics
Dallas/Fort Worth–Miami flight

Note that in the last example, the en dash is between two names to show equality between the names of two different people. It is not a hyphenated name, such as Wallace-Berkley, which denotes one person.

Attributive Compounds:

The en dash is used instead of a hyphen in compound attributives in which one or both elements is itself a compound, especially when the compound element is not hyphenated. I got this from Wikipedia (I won’t lie: I’m having to review punctuation with you), so I’ll use the Wikipedia examples. I’m not well versed in this usage, so I’d better not try to make up my own. You will, however, see similar hyphen usage, only slightly different.

A nursing home–home care policy
Trans–New Guinea languages
The ex–prime minister
The pro-conscription–anti-conscription debate
Public-school–private-school rivalries
Pre–Civil War era
Pulitzer Prize–winning novel
The non–San Francisco part of the world
The post–World War II era

Parenthetical Usage:

Like em dashes, en dashes can be used instead of colons, or pairs of commas that mark off a nested clause or phrase. In this case, em dashes and en dashes can both be used. It just depends on what the editor or publication prefers. I’ll go into that after em dashes. In this case, en dashes are surrounded by spaces.

Did you see Mr. Burroughs – the new teacher with the glasses – outside the cafeteria?
A stack of books – three textbooks and several novels – stood next to the door.

Em Dashes:

I love em dashes. Can’t get enough of them. In fact, there are 218 in The Clockwork Giant, that’s roughly one em dash to a page. The em dash marks a break of thought, either to elaborate on what has already been said, or to mark an interruption. It can also be used in the same way as a colon or a pair of parentheses. Its length is the same as the width of the capital letter M. To create an em dash, either place two hyphen-minuses between words with no spaces (apple--ball), or press CTRL+ALT+Numerical Minus (the one on the number pad).

Emmerich flipped the lights—electric, she noticed—and closed the door behind her.

The gears, pinions, and springs, they make the machine tick, but deeper than that—beyond the spindles and bearings, beyond the weights and levers—a machine is truth.

Petra knew of several treasures hidden in the shelves, buried behind stacks of books and antique silver—old mantel clocks, jewelry boxes with spinning dancers concealed within, and handheld calculating machines.

The door knocked into something, a man sitting on the landing.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”
He rubbed his shoulder as he stood. “No, I shouldn’t have—” He turned, and their eyes locked. 

(Examples from my book The Clockwork Giant)

En Dash vs. Em Dash:

I’m going to paraphrase what Wikipedia says on the matter… Dashes are used differently in the United States and the United Kingdom, with the US preferring the use of em dashes over en dashes, whereas the UK prefers the opposite.

The en dash always uses spaces in running text, and the em dash is usually without spaces. En dashes may be preferred to em dashes when text is set in narrow columns, such as periodicals, since the en dash is smaller.

If you’ll notice in my above examples for em dashes and parenthetical en dashes, they are used in the same way. When using spaced en dashes or em dashes, it really just depends on which one you prefer. I used to use spaced en dashes, but now I use em dashes. Just use whichever you think looks best, because that’s the only difference in that regard.

So, that’s it for the en and em dashes. I’ll continue with dashes with the horizontal bar, swung dash, and figure dash in the next post, as well as hyphens.

Happy writing!


  1. The difference between ellipsis and em dashes were troublesome for me but I am slowly, sloooowly learning when and how to use them.

    One problem was resolved after learning how to format the em dash and en dash in Word.

    Hit Ctl Alt and the numeral dash and that will give you the em dash. Hit Ctl and the numeral dash for en dash.

    1. thanks :) i didn't know you could type them that way. i added the method to the post

  2. Bookmarking this! I'm a huge fan of the M dash in fiction (not so much in essay-type writing). It conveys voice and rhythm so well.

  3. I had a college professor (who shall remain nameless) that had never heard of either en dashes or em dashes, and vigorously destroyed our papers when we used them. I once got a D on one of my papers just because of those things. She wasn't a very good teacher, though.