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?
– en-dash (or ndash or n-dash)
— em-dash (or mdash or m-dash)
Let’s see those with some text:
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
Automatically created in Word when you type “something – something” (word-space-hyphen-space-word).
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]
[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.
When to use a hyphen, en-dash or em-dash: What’s the difference?
- 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).
- 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”.
- 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?”
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: