En dashes and em dashes are marks of punctuation that have specific uses. They are not hyphens, as any competent designer or editor will tell you. But like hyphens, en dashes and em dashes improve clarity when they are used properly.
(Fun fact: Knowing what en dashes and em dashes are will improve your crosswording skills. The three-letter answer to the clue typography units is invariably ens or ems. No charge for that one.)
When we talk about en dashes and em dashes, it makes sense to start with the dash that everyone knows and uses: the hyphen. (Already a hyphenation expert? Then scroll down to the sections on en dashes and em dashes.)
En Dashes and Em Dashes (and a Few Other Things) Explained
Uses: Hyphens are used to join the parts of a compound word to show that they function as one unit: high-voltage lines, a goal-oriented approach, a 50-year-old house.
In the first example, high-voltage is the compound adjective that modifies the word lines. Omitting the hyphen (high voltage lines) creates grammatical ambiguity, as now the interpreted meaning may be different (voltage lines that are high). Of course, common sense often comes in handy when hyphens are missing.
Hyphens are also used to spell some compound names: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chris Evert-Lloyd, Jean-Jacques Rousseau BUT Hillary Rodham Clinton.
How to make a hyphen: Just type it! On most English keyboards, the hyphen key is located between the 0 key and the = key.
The En Dash
An en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It is so called because it represents a unit of width in typography equal to the width of a lowercase n.
Uses: En dashes are most often used to separate a range of numbers: 1968–1975, see pp. 36–42, Luke 6:41–6:42.
En dashes are also used when one part of a compound adjective is itself made up of two or more words: a San Francisco–Philadelphia flight, the pre–Civil War period.
How to make an en dash:
- In Windows, type Alt + 0150.
- On a Mac, type Opt + – (the Option key plus hyphen).
- In Microsoft Word, you can create an en dash by typing [number] [sp] [hyphen] [sp] [number] [sp], where [sp] = SPACE. Of course, you’ll have to delete the errant spaces on either side of the en dash afterwards. Or you can use Word’s Insert Symbol feature.
The Em Dash
En dashes and em dashes are proportionally related. An em dash is twice as long as an en dash. (Traditionally, the em dash has been the width of a lowercase m, but this is not true for every typeface.)
Uses: Em dashes are used to show an abrupt change in the writer’s thought that brings about a change in sentence structure:
The mayor—he was in office at the time of the scandal—has denied any knowledge of the events.
The difference between editing and proofreading—for most people, anyway—is nil.
Em dashes are also used to show interruption in monologues or dialogues:
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer […]
“Hold on! Are you saying that—
Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
How to make an em dash:
- In Windows, type Alt + 0151.
- On a Mac, type Opt + SHFT + – (the Option and Shift keys plus hyphen).
- In Microsoft Word, type a letter followed by two hyphens, another letter, and a space. Then delete the space after the em dash. Alternately, you can use Word’s Insert Symbol feature.
The Minus Sign
So what’s the minus sign, then? A hyphen or an en dash? I hope you’re sitting down for this, because the answer is “neither.” That’s right—the minus sign is a character all its own. It is very close in size and height to an en dash, something that math textbook publishers know all too well. See the figure below.
Still confused about en dashes and em dashes? Take heart. Most people don’t lose sleep over the distinction. Copyeditors and designers, on the other hand…
To learn more about what we do at RedLine, check out our Services page. (We correct en dashes and em dashes, among other things.)