Monday, August 23, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Hyphen and the Dashes

Mistaking a hyphen for an en dash is an easy thing to do. Singular hyphens are even frequently used in place of em dashes, either by mistake or through lack of understanding. It is generally known that two hyphens are representative of an em dash, like this: --. Before we go on, let's clarify what the three look like:

hyphen -
en dash –
em dash

Though readers may not easily recognize the difference between these, especially the hyphen and en dash, proper use is necessary for editorial precision. Conversion errors from one software to another, through email, or from print to digital form are common with hyphens and dashes, so careful proofreading is important to ensuring you have all your dashes and hyphens where they should be.

But what if you don't know which is which just by sight? Here's a quick refresher:

Em dash: the dash. An em dash is a dramatic punctuation mark; it interrupts the flow of the sentence and introduces extra material. It is called "em" because, traditionally, the dash is as long as the width of a typeset capital letter M.

En dash: the least frequently used of all three. Most commonly it is used to indicate a range of inclusive numbers. For example: Charlie will be out of the office from December 9
–January 17th. It is called "en" because, traditionally, the dash is as long as the width of a typeset capital letter N.

Hyphen: used in compound modifiers (long-term relationship), to write out numbers (sixty-four), or within words (T-shirt, re-press). A dictionary is often helpful when you can't decide whether or not a hyphen is necessary in a word.


  1. Anonymous8:05 AM

    I have always wondered, on a standard keyboard, how one would distinguish between a hyphen and an n-dash when typing. Is there another key I've been ignoring all these years? Obviously there is a way to do it, since you've done it in the post above. Help!

  2. An en dash on a Windows OS is alt + 0150, on a Mac it is option + -. Seems kind of complex to remember! I had to look it up myself.

  3. I always set a shortcut on my computers so I only have to hit Ctrl + -. To set your shortcuts, in Word, go to Insert>Symbol and the Special Characters tab. Highlight the en dash and then select Shortcut Key. Then make it whatever you want. Makes life easier!