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A Beginner’s Guide to Dashes, En Dashes, Em Dashes

In case you feel that a dash is a dash is a dash. And that a dash by any other name would work as well. There are dashes, and en dashes, and em dashes. There is a difference!


WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE


An em dash (—) is the long dash used between words to provide emphasis or an aside.


Now that I have to think of an example—I can’t.


The em dash does not have spaces between the words. I point this grammar rule out because I violate the rule often. I add space for additional emphasis and to make it visually stand out.


Then again, sometimes I don’t put in spaces between the em dash and the words. Whether I choose to add space or not, I make sure I’m consistent within the book or blog.


As my editor taught me, you have to know the rules of grammar, so that when you break them, you break them with intention and for a reason. I like that! (Or am I just using it as an excuse? 😉)


An en dash (–) is shorter than an em dash but longer than a dash. It is used between numbers and has no spaces.


She used to work 9–5, but now sets her own hours.


In case you want to get a little mathy here, it also means inclusive of all the numbers in that range, including the last number. If you wanted someone to repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 then use 3–5.

-

A dash or hyphen (-) is the short dash available on keyboards.


Use the short dash to…


  • Connect two words when they’re acting as a single adjective describing a noun.


The cherry-red leaves of the maple add color to a gray day.


  • Connect two or more words when they’re acting as a single idea


My brother-in-law is now a singer-songwriter.


  • Avoid confusion or awkward combinations.


I re-signed the petition after I resigned from my job.


It was both semi-independent and semiautonomous.


  • Join a single letter to a word.

He could take the x-ray while wearing his T-shirt.


An aside: while T-shirt is the most common way to spell it, t-shirt, tee shirt and tee-shirt are also considered correct—they’re just not as common. What would most of your readers prefer?

  • Break a word across two lines. More common back in the days of the typewriter. Your word processing tool probably adds it in or adjusts the spacing of the letters and words so that no word needs to break across a line.

  • Write the larger, compound numbers.


She celebrated thirty-one days of her new writing habit.


  • Indicate subtraction in equations.


10 - 5 = 5


My morning - coffee = confusion & unhappiness


  • And for those writers whose writing tool doesn’t convert two dashes to an em dash or don’t know the keyboard shortcut to an em dash, two short dashes stand in until editors catch it. However, read on to find out how to get em dashes and en dashes as you type.


HOW TO GET THE CORRECT DASH


Dash/hyphen


  • Your keyboard’s number row has it. If you have a number keypad on your keyboard, it will have one also.


Em dash (the long dash—used for emphasis)


  • Scrivener, Atticus, and iPad Pages convert two short dashes into em dashes

  • Google docs, by default, converts three dashes into em dashes (two dashes are converted to en dashes for some reason)

  • Change your Auto Correct

    • Word: Go to File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options and add your autocorrect em and en dashes

set up autocorrect for em dash in Word

  • Google Docs: Go to Tools > Preferences >Substitutions and switch the substitutions for the em and en dashes

set up autocorrect for em dash in Google Docs

  • If you have a number keypad on your keyboard

    • Some apps will give you an em dash with Ctrl + Alt + - (on the number keypad)

    • Alt + 0151 (on the number keypad) works most every time


En dash (the medium dash used for number ranges such as 9–5)

  • Google docs, by default, converts two short dashes into en dashes (three dashes get you an em dash)

  • For iPad Pages (and Pages) click Option + -

  • Change your Auto Correct

    • Word: Go to File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options and add your autocorrect em and en dashes

set up autocorrect for en dash in Word

  • Google Docs: Go to Tools > Preferences > Substitutions and switch the substitutions for the em and en dashes


set up autocorrect for en dash in Google Docs

  • If you have a number keypad on your keyboard

    • Some apps will give you an en dash with Ctrl + - (on the number keypad)

    • Alt + 0150 (on the number keypad)

NOTE: If you’re not familiar with how shortcuts are written: Alt + 0151 means press and hold down the alt button (about two buttons over from the ctrl button), and while holding the Alt key down, type in the numbers 0 then 1 then 5 then 1 on the number keypad.

Disclaimer:

I am not an English Grammar specialist. I learned my grammar and punctuation in school enough to get A’s. Then had to refresh my understanding when I got a job in my first career (environmental management—yes, my boss did expect proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar). Luckily enough, when I started writing blogs and books, my editor continued to teach me while reviewing my writing. I also use my online editor, ProWritingAid, but I don’t rely on it for the final say.


The content above is what I’ve cobbled together over the years and fact checked against several resources.

Resource Roundup:


tl;dr

  • Use the em dash for emphasis and use the shortcut Alt + 0151 (on the number keypad) to get it

  • Use the en dash for a range of numbers and use the shortcut Alt + 0150 (on the number keypad)

  • Use the hyphen for connecting words. It’s on your keyboard, no special key strokes required.

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