Using the en-dash

The en-dash (–) is one of the two types of dashes used in punctuation, the other being the em-dash (—).  The en-dash is wider than a hyphen, but more narrow than an em-dash. The name comes from the dash being as wide as the letter ‘n’, hence the en-dash. An example of the en-dash is provided below:

Jack doesn’t find Sarah attractive – or so he says.
All politicians desire respect and power – some even achieve it – but it is easier said than done.

Like the em-dash, the en-dash is used to separate a sentence where there is an interruption that disrupts the flow.

Spacing and the en-dash

One rule that specifically applies to the en-dash is spacing. An en-dash should have a space on either side. The opposite applies to the em-dash, which should have no spacing on either side.

Should I use the en-dash?

As with many things, opinion is split between the em-dash and the en-dash. The en-dash has become more popular over the years, where traditionally the em-dash was the most common. People tend to prefer the en-dash is it looks cleaner and less heavy in comparison to the em-dash. Look at them together below to choose for yourself:

en-dash: By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity – another man’s, I mean.

em-dash: By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity—another man’s, I mean.

Finding the en-dash on the keyboard

Only the hyphen appears on keyboards as default. As a result, a lot of people mistakenly use the hyphen instead. Some people use two hyphens to approximate a dash (–).

On the PC, you can get an en-dash by holding down the ALT key and pressing 0150 on the numeric keypad. Please note – this only works using the numbers on the numeric keypad on the right of your keyboard, not with the number keys above the letters.

On the Mac, you can get the en-dash by pressing the option and dash keys simultaneously.

The HTML value – can be used to add the en-dash to websites.

Microsoft Word automatically converts two hyphens into an em-dash (not an en-dash) when you start typing when typed between two words, but to get an en-dash you need to go to insert>symbol> and select either the en-dash or em-dash from the list of symbols.

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7 thoughts on “Using the en-dash

  1. I was looking for an answer to a finer point, but you are completely wrong in your usage here. An em-dash takes the place of a basic dash–a break in a sentence that was noted with a double hyphen in typing or rough manuscript. There is NEVER space before or after an em-dash.

    An en-dash is used without a space to show a period of time or an interval; you would use an en-dash rather than a hyphen in 1987-89. It is also used to join two modifiers of equal weight or compound in nature (the fine point I was looking for). Space is placed around an en-dash only when it is used a minus sign.

    The en-dash has become “popular” out of ignorance. It’s usage with spaces in place of an em-dash is never correct.

  2. It’s not only the British who use the en dash in preference to the em dash. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t always change as fast as author preferences. I’ve had three clients in a row who don’t like the heavy look of em dashes. Besides, they create ugly break points on ereaders where one short word gets a full line because an em dash connects the next two long words on another line. Ugh!

    That’s not why I’m here though. My reference books have been packed since we moved, and I can’t recall whether an interruption without a follow on gets a space before the en dash.

    “Hey, are you –?” or “Hey, are you–?”

    What does Robert Bringhurst say in Elements of Typographic Style? Or doesn’t he say? Google doesn’t know, so I hope you do.

    Thanks in advance.

  3. Actually, the correct HTML for the En dash is ( & # 150 ; ), and for the Em dash use ( & # 151 ; ) (minus the spaces and parentheses, of course).

  4. You don’t need to go to “insert>symbol> to select an en-dash” in Microsoft Word. You can simply type any word [spacebar] DashKey [spacebar] then another word. The hyphen will turn into an en-dash in Microsoft word in this instance.

    However, I think Sheryl Nelson might be right in her assessment of these punctuation marks. Hence, it might be best to never use this approach (and instead opt for the em-dash) except if you are using the en-dash as a minus sign. Nevertheless, if you want an en-dash without the spaces on both sides (as Sheryl argues is appropriate to show a period of time) you may still use this approach in Microsoft Word, then backspace or delete the unnecessary spaces out of the text. Sounds a little easier than remembering some ALT 58183203-4 code to get an en-dash.

    Thank you both for your opinions. Sheryl, where did you happen to find this information? I’d especially like to see where you got the granual information on modifiers that are compound in nature and/or equal in weight.

  5. Sheryl, nevermind my question.

    You’re right, “em dash” should be used in most situations and the EN dash is getting way overused these days. In the U.S., the EN dash should only really be used for the instances your mention.

    Interesting, Tom, I didn’t know we had all these differences from British writing in relation to dashes. I wonder, don’t you think the en dash looks a lot like a minus? That is the main reason I’ve always opted to use the em-dash for sentence punctuation; It just looks better and never ends up making my sentence look like an algebraic equation.

  6. Thanks for your helpful comment regarding En dashes. However, I’m still not clear on a few points. In my manuscript about music and memory, should I use a hyphen or an Em dash here: …learning and testing modality can be compared directly (e.g., music-music, music-spoken, spoken-music, spoken-spoken). I’d be grateful for your comments.

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