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

[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’.

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