From the workplace · Learning · Technology

Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes

In the late 1990s I delivered several months’ worth of training sessions to civil servants, training sessions that combined computer use with tips about publishing and printing. The delegates were about to start using their computers in a way that would save time and money in a clearly quantifiable way. This doesn’t happen with every IT Project.

On this project the staff were learning how to work with reports on their desktop PCs. These reports would end up as properly typeset “Camera-Ready Copy” (CRC) that would be sent to professional printers for publication. Previously documents could be drafted and typed, but the final stages of formatting, typesetting and creating CRC could not be done in-house. With their previous workflow the final, published reports took longer to create and cost more money to produce.

As part of the training I explained the difference between hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes, important distinctions for printed documents. It’s the kind of thing that printers and typesetters have always understood, and we spread the word, hoping that eventually a more general audience could know and care about such things. If you don’t know about En Dashes and Em Dashes please read on, and decide whether this information will be useful for you. First, though, a few words about hyphens.


There are far fewer hyphens being printed these days than there were in the 1990s. Billions of them have been removed from printed documents. For many years the word “email” was written as “e-mail”, and there might still be people who type it that way. They are probably the same people who refuse to use the word “text” as a verb (and they probably refuse to use email, or “e-mail” as a verb either).

Over the last 20 years authoritative publications like the Oxford English Dictionary have systematically purged thousands of unnecessarily hyphenated words. We can now write about the Indian subcontinent rather than the Indian sub-continent, and I can happily report that subcontinental has joined uncomplimentary as an unhyphenated word that contains all 5 vowels in reverse order. Other examples, unoriental and unproprietory, are unlikely to make it into day-to-day speech, and both are unrecognized by Microsoft Word’s spell check. Interestingly (for me at least) subcontinent is recognized as a valid word in Word 2011 for the Mac, but subcontinental isn’t, and both are recognized as valid in Word 2010 and 2013 for Windows. (For the record, in case you’re about to look it up, abstemious and facetious are the only two words in English with all 5 vowels in alphabetical order.) But, in honour of the late Ronnie Corbett, I digress.

Hyphens are still used in double-barrelled names, though you’d better check with their owners whether or not they use them. Sacha Baron Cohen (the creator of Ali G and Borat) doesn’t use one, unlike his cousin Simon Baron-Cohen (leading authority on studies into Autism). Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t, but as Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton in the county of Hampshire he does. It’s a minefield (though not a mine-field).

Hyphens are still valuable if there is any danger of misunderstanding. I use a hyphen in the word “re-send” when referring to emails, if only because “I re-sent your email” is less likely to give offence than “I resent your email”. Otherwise, where there is no risk of confusion, the general rule is you don’t need hyphens, unless you’re combining separate words (like “day-to-day”).

[I am only dealing with “hard” hyphens here, those that always appear. “Soft” hyphens, which appear when you break a word across multiple lines, are another matter altogether.]

En Dashes

An En Dash is used in one of two ways: in an expression like 2016–17 or in a term like Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease (CJD, which was in the news a lot in the late 1990s.)

In expressions like “2016–17” or “The London–Brighton Bike Ride”, the En Dash serves the same purpose as the word “to”.

In a term like Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease the En Dash indicates that Creutzfeldt and Jakob were two different people, who were both involved in describing the disease (as long ago as the 1920s). If it were “Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease” (with a hyphen) that would indicate that Creutzfeldt-Jakob was one person, with a hyphenated name, rather than two different people. If a Dr Lloyd and a Dr Webber together discovered a new disease and it was named after them it would be called “Lloyd–Webber Disease” (with an En Dash), but there is no such thing as far as I am aware.

While I was explaining these distinctions one senior civil servant, for whom attention to detail was a pre-requisite, asked if it really mattered. “For me, yes,” I replied, “And also if you want your reports to continue to look professional.” He commented, “I can’t believe that I’m being out-pedanted by a trainer”. I took it as a great compliment.

En Dashes are wider than hyphens. The name suggests that they’re as wide as the letter En, but that’s not always true. It depends on the typeface. An En Dash is half the width of the point size you’re using, so if you’re working with 12 point text an En Dash is 6 points wide. (There are, more or less, 72 points to an inch. If you need precision you might already know that 72 points is exactly 0.996264 of an inch.)

Em Dashes

An Em Dash — like the character before this parenthetical comment — is used to separate parts of a sentence. I use them all the time — just like Jane Austen. (Jane Austen’s hand-written text contained lots of dashes in place of other punctuation.) The Em Dashes earlier in this paragraph have a space either side of them.

In some publications Em Dashes will appear without spaces either side of them—here’s an example—and it’s down to House Style whether you have spaces either side of an Em Dash. Whichever way you do it, be consistent. I have only been inconsistent here to show the difference.

Personally — as in this sentence — I prefer spaces either side of an Em Dash.

Em Dashes are even wider than En Dashes. The name suggests that they’re as wide as the letter Em, but that’s not always true. It depends on the typeface. An Em Dash is the width of the point size you’re using, so if you’re working with 12 point text an Em Dash is 12 points wide (and is therefore double the width of an En Dash).

How to create Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes

A hyphen is easy enough: it’s next to the 0 on most alpha-numeric keyboard and appears when you press it immediately after typing a word (as in alpha-numeric).

In most current versions of Microsoft Word (which, after all, is what most businesses use for word processing) an En Dash will appear if you type a hyphen with a space either side – like this. (In earlier versions of Word you had to press the hyphen twice to make this happen, via AutoCorrect.)

For an Em Dash type your word, press the hyphen twice—and carry on typing. (If you want spaces either side of your Em Dash you have to go back and insert them.)

Alternatively you can choose Insert, Symbol (or equivalent) to choose your Em Dash or En Dash. In Word 2011 for the Mac the command is Insert, Symbol, Advanced Symbol, Special Characters: Em Dash and En Dash are at the top of the list.

In WordPress use the “Special Characters” option (2nd line of the Toolbar — you might need to click “Toggle Advanced” to display it) and select the required symbol. The Dashes are on the 3rd row, column 3 for an En Dash and column 4 for an Em Dash.


Of course the web has changed all of this. For online communication I routinely use En Dashes instead of Em Dashes, and I’m not going to go back through the 100,000 words that I’ve posted to this Blog so far to correct that. My pragmatic view is simple enough: never use a hyphen instead of a dash. Even in Plain Text emails I use two hyphens instead of one to indicate a dash. If you’re publishing something on paper (book, newspaper, magazine) try to use En Dashes and Em Dashes correctly, but only a minority of people — like me — will be able to tell the difference.


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