The En Dash and Em Dash (and Other Pressing Matters)

Ah, the unassuming en dash. It’s the unloved middle child of dashes: longer than the everyday hyphen but shorter than its big brother the em dash.

But just what is an en dash? When do you use it? And how do you type one?

And while we’re at, what is an em dash? Why should you care?

Rest easy, intrepid reader. Your punctuation questions are about to be answered!

man at laptop typing en dash and em dash

Not knowing how to type an en dash can be positively devastating.

Your Guide to Dashes: the Hyphen, En Dash, Em Dash, and Minus Sign

The en dash and em dash are marks of punctuation that have specific uses. They are not hyphens, as any competent designer or copy editor will tell you.

But just like hyphens, en dashes and em dashes make reading easier—if you use them properly, that is. (See what I did there?)

Fun fact: You’ll do better at crossword puzzles if you know what an en dash is (or, for that matter, what an em dash is). The three-letter answer to the clue typography units is invariably ens or ems. No charge for that one!

In any en dash vs. em dash conversation, 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 dash and em dash

The hyphen, en dash, and em dash (here, in
the Palatino typeface) vary in length.

The Hyphen

When to use a hyphen

Use a hyphen 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.

If you leave out the hyphen (high voltage lines), then you’ve got grammatical ambiguity, because now the interpreted meaning may be different (voltage lines that are high). Of course, common sense often comes in handy when hyphens are missing.

Leave out the hyphen and confusion ensues. Use it correctly and glory is yours.

Hyphens are also used to spell some compound names:

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

Chris Evert-Lloyd

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

How to make a hyphen

Just type it! On most English keyboards, the hyphen key is located between the 0 key and the = key.

What Is an En Dash?

An en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It gets its name from the en, a unit of width in typography equal to the width of a lowercase n.

When to use an en dash

Need to separate a range of numbers? That’s when to use an en dash.

1968–1975

see pp. 36–42

Luke 6:41–6:42

Simple, right?

Here’s where it gets a little ugly. You also use an en dash when one part of a compound adjective is itself made up of two or more words.

It’s easier to understand if you see a few examples:

a San Francisco–Philadelphia flight

the pre–Civil War period

a Nobel Prize–winning physicist

These dashes may look like hyphens, but they’re not!

Some software programs don’t even let you type an en dash. Even if you do, it becomes a hyphen. (QuickBooks Online, I’m looking at you.)

How to type an en dash

  • In Windows, type Alt + 0150.
  • On a Mac, type Opt + (the Option key plus hyphen).
  • To type an en dash in Microsoft Word, press [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.
importance of en dash, em dash vs. family

What’s more important than punctuation? Family. Now go watch the sun set with your kids.

What Is an 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.)

When to use an em dash

An em dash shows a sudden 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.

We also use em dashes 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 type 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.

Em dashes are great in online copy—they break up long sentences, making each clause that much more apparent.

You can find plenty of sources online that say that you shouldn’t use an em dash. I am not one of those sources.

I think the em dash is great—really, really great.

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.”

The minus sign is neither a hyphen nor an en dash. Equally surprising, killer whales are not whales—they’re dolphins.

In fact, the minus sign is a character all its own. It’s very close in size and height to an en dash, something that math textbook publishers know all too well. See the figure below.

minus sign in comparison to an en dash

A minus sign sits farther from the baseline than an en dash. (Is that wild or what?)

Still confused about the en dash and the em dash? Take heart. Most people don’t lose sleep over the distinction. Copy editors and designers, on the other hand…

So does the proper use of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes really matter? Well, if you’re publishing content online or in print and you care about your image, then yes. Read our copy editing FAQ if you need help.

Speaking of online copy, check out how to write better web content with these 8 steps. After you master the art of writing, download our free editing checklist to use while you create content.