The hyphen, en-dash and em-dash (ndash and mdash, n-dash and m-dash)

Compare the hyphen, n dash and m dash

(this image was made with PowerPoint; the relative sizes of the dashes look right, but in PowerPoint the n-dash and m-dash don’t really match the width of the upper-case N and M.)

The use of dashes is inconsistent in lots of writing – regardless of how ‘professional’ the writers are. The hyphen, em-dash and en-dash crop-up all the time while you’re using Microsoft Word, but most of us don’t know why and we use the different dashes inconsistently. I had to figure this out.

What do they look like?

-       hyphen
–      en-dash
 (or ndash or n-dash)
—     em-dash
 (or mdash or m-dash)

Let’s see those with some text:

bla-bla                      hyphen
bla bla – bla bla     en-dash (also known as ndash or n-dash)
bla bla—bla bla       em-dash (also known as mdash or m-dash)

Typing the en-dash or em-dash in Microsoft Word

En-dash:
Automatically created in Word when you type “something – something” (word-space-hyphen-space-word).

Em-dash:
Automatically created in Word when you type “something–something” (word-hyphen-hyphen-word).

note: The examples above might just look like the same dash is used throughout – especially if you’re reading on a phone. Fortunately, most tablets and computers display the various dashes correctly.

Tips for Microsoft Word users: See inserting the n-dash or m-dash in Microsoft Word.

Can I use the en-dash or em-dash in Twitter or Facebook? [updated 2014]

Yes!

[old advice] …write your post or tweet in Microsoft Word, then copy it and paste it into Twitter or Facebook. 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’ll spot any spelling mistakes before you post them. Drawback: Not very convenient, especially if you’re using a phone or tablet.

[new advice] It’s easy to use the n-dash and m-dash on a smartphone or tablet.

When to use a hyphen, en-dash or em-dash: What’s the difference?

Hyphen

  • 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 (but not used for a range of numbers, like a date range).

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”.

Em-dash

  • 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—I mean, 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 pants—” “In front of the police?”

Extra:

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 uses 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 dash thing.” Some technical writers think the n-dash is the only one to use.

It’s not a big deal. I usually use ‘space-n-dash-space’ instead of the m-dash – just to keep everyone happy.  You can see this ‘wrong-n’ 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.

Trivia about dashes, for writing geeks

Why don’t educated English-speaking people use dashes correctly? Did we all skip the same grade-5 English class?

No.  The problem is that typewriters, then computers, have changed the way we use punctuation.

These dashes go back to an earlier era of printing.  The n-dash is named for its width in typesetting (when people used little metal blocks that imprinted each character).  The n-dash was as wide as an upper-case N; the m-dash was as wide as an M. Later, in the days of the typewriter, there was only the hyphen; this is still the only sort of dash on a normal keyboard. 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.

Computers brought this level of detail and flexibility to everyone. Now 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.)

More info about the n-dash and m-dash:

Using the em-dash and en-dash in a web page or blog

The difference between hyphen, dash and minus symbols

Learn to insert en-dash quickly in Microsoft Word

 

 

Comments

  1. TeMc says

    Thanks a lot for this article, this helped me a lot!

    Two questions though:
    - What about money/currencies where a dash/hyphen is used to indicate 0 cents ?

    ie. € 30,- or $ 1.000,-

    - What about math ?
    ie. 12 – 5 = 7

    Thanks in advance,
    Tem C.

    • admin says

      Great questions Tem.

      Using a dash to indicate a zero decimal or null value:
      I think this is quite old-fashioned—and culturally (or professionally) specific. It’s hard to find an authority on it; sort of like deciding whether a comma should be used for a decimal. In most countries today, neither of these is used. Some financial reports still use a dash for empty decimal places. I work in a building full of accountants; they use a decimal point and zeroes, not a dash. It is possible to get programs like Excel to insert a dash in place of zero decimals. I don’t see the point in it :-)

      The difference between a dash and a minus sign:
      I added a separate post on this:
      http://www.punctuationmatters.com/the-difference-between-a-dash-and-a-minus-sign/

      Cheers.

  2. says

    You neglected to mention the (US) usage for an en dash of signifying a relational (or ratio) term or phrase, such as in the phrase “the Alabama-Georgia border.”

  3. Ben says

    This is brutal. I have always used an En dash to set apart text, a function you attribute to the Em dash. Yet in your website title you have used the En dash in the function you do not endorse!

    • admin says

      Hi Ben,
      Read this part…

      “Break the rules!
      “Lots of people prefer the way the ‘space-en-dash-space’ looks on a page, and it is used in lots of magazines and papers as a replacement for the proper use of the em-dash.
      “Sometimes when you submit writing that uses the em-dash people say, “What is that? I don’t like that big long dash thing.”
      “It is no big deal.
      “I generally use ‘space-en-dash-space’ instead of the em-dash – just to keep everyone happy.”

      Cheers!

  4. Agnes says

    “Using the hyphen, dash, n-dash and m-dash (ndash and mdash)” was a pretty awesome posting, .
    I hope you keep creating and I’m going to keep on following! Thanks ,Agnes

  5. Confused says

    Hi there,

    I have 2 examples I need help with…

    A headline for a press release e.g. “50% off the entire range – limited time only!” or “Fundraiser challenge-on now!” I suppose they could be written like this “50% off the entire range, for a limited time only!” or “Fundraiser challenge on now!” but I want it to be punchier….?

    And to add an extra piece of information onto a statement where a comma wouldn’t necessarily work e.g. “For a limited time you’ll receive 50% off – worth $1000 (list price).

    Thank you!

    • Mister Punctual says

      Hi Ashleigh,
      Those are more copywriting questions than punctuation questions and PR is not my speciality, but I’ll take a crack at it…
      From a punctuation perspective, in both cases you could use an mdash (or substitute space-ndash-space if you prefer it). Also you could use a colon, or two full stops, etc.
      50% Off the Entire Range. Limited Time Only!
      50% Off the Entire Range! Limited Time Only.
      50% Off the Entire Range: Limited Time Only!
      50% Off the Entire Range – Limited Time Only!
      50% Off the Entire Range—Limited Time Only!
      (Of that group, personally I like the first one.)
      On a press release, where it’s likely to be retyped or copied/pasted and then republished via software (and people) unknown to you, I wonder if you won’t end up seeing it republished with m-dashes reduced to mere hyphens.
      I suspect a PR expert might say these examples are a bit too non-specific for press release headlines, because they really don’t tell the reader what the story is about. Plus, sometimes an explicit date or deadline can get a better response than an uncertain “limited time offer”. For example,
      Designer Dress Summer Collection—50% Off. Ends Sunday!
      Now people know what’s on sale and when they need to act. If they are interested in dresses, they can read on for more details.
      Another thing that comes to mind is that PR people sometimes target lazy journalists by writing press release copy that’s ready-to-print in periodicals and papers, with writing that’s a bit more journalistic rather than seeming like an ad.
      Discount Season Arrives for Designer Dresses, Shopping Frenzy Expected Sunday
      Moda Crushes Prices for Summer Collection
      Myer Announces Unprecedented Designer Sale
      Ditto for the fundraiser headline; it might be better on a press release if it’s descriptive, eg.
      Teachers Teaming Up Against Cancer in Fundraiser Challenge
      If you can test headline variations and track the response rates to find your most effective headline, that’s ideal.
      Hmm, that was probably a longer answer than you were looking for. I tend to do that.
      Maybe a visitor who’s a PR guru will have a suggestion?

  6. Alfajor says

    You can easily use three types of dashes on Apple products.

    On Mac computers: the hyphen is already there (also known as the minus symbol).
    For the N DASH, type ALT (option) HYPHEN
    for the M DASH, type ALT (option SHIFT HYPHEN

    On an iPhone, hold down the hyphen (minus symbol) and you will see all three choices of the dash appear.

    • Dave says

      Really helpful article. Just pointed some colleagues at this as they were having problems lining up a minus icon and a plus icon!

  7. Antony Le says

    Love this article. Due to bad memory I have to keep coming back. Thankfully, the great SEO of this page keeps bringing me right back!

  8. Paula says

    In the editing class I took as part of my tech writing degree, we were taught to use the en-dash to set off a clause within a sentence, not the em-dash.

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