How to use the hyphen, en dash and em dash (ndash mdash, n-dash m-dash)

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, en-dash or n-dash)
 — em dash (or mdash, em-dash or m-dash)

It’s interesting that the ways to spell the names of the dashes are not agreed on. But, whether someone write en dash, endash, n-dash or ndash, they are always spoken the same and refer to the same thing.

Let’s look at those dashes with some text:

 bla-bla hyphen 
 2011–2016
 en-dash (or ndash or n-dash)
 bla—bla
 em-dash (or mdash or m-dash)

Some web browsers display en dashes automatically. So, in the example above, on some devices it can be hard to see a differences. But there are differences. Let’s make that more clear.

difference between the en dash and em dash

The en dash is about as wide as an uppercase N; the em dash is as wide as an M.
(This image was made with PowerPoint and Photoshop; the relative sizes of the dashes look right but, here, the en dash and em dash don’t exactly match the width of the upper-case N and M.)

When should I use a hyphen, endash or emdash?

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
  • The hyphen does not indicate a range of numbers, like a date range, which is the job of an en dash

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—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 backpack—” “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 use 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.

How to type the endash and emdash in Microsoft Word

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

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

Take full control of your dashes in Microsoft Word!

Can I use the en-dash or em-dash in Twitter or Facebook?

[updated]

[New: how to type the n-dash on a phone or tablet]

Yes! With a simple trick for touchscreen keyboards, it’s easy to use the n-dash and m-dash on a phone or tablet.[1]

[Old advice]
Yes!  …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.

Trivia about dashes, for writing geeks

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

No. The problem is that printing presses, then typewriters, then computers, have changed how we use punctuation.

These dashes go back to an earlier era of printing. The n-dash is named for its width in print typesetting (when people lined up little metal blocks for each letter, which would press ink onto paper).  The n-dash was about as wide as an upper-case N; the m-dash was as wide as an M. That’s how they got their names.

Later, in the days of the typewriter, there was only the hyphen; the typewriter keyboard had no keys or buttons for the n dash and m dash. 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.

The hyphen is still the only sort of dash on a normal computer keyboard. However, computers let everyone use the n dash and m dash in their writing. 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.)

There are even more names for the dashes. The en dash is also known as the en rule; the em dash as the em rule. This seems to be an even more old-fashioned way of referring to the dashes.

Why ‘rule’? Well, it’s not ‘rule’ like ‘law’, it’s ‘rule’ like ‘ruler’ or, ‘straight thing’.

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

Use the em-dash and en-dash in WordPress, a web page or blog[2]

The difference between hyphen, dash and minus symbols[3]

Learn to insert en-dash quickly in Microsoft Word[4]

Type an en-dash or em-dash on an iOS or Android phone (or tablet)[5]

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