Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Em dash, en dash, hyphen...whaaaat?

If you haven't heard of an em dash or en dash, don't feel left out. The distinction between them and the rules for their use are usually limited to formal writing.

If, however, you'd like to know what they are and how to use them, read on.

Hyphen: short (-)
En dash: longer (–)
Em dash: longest (—)

Most people use a simple "space hyphen space" to indicate a pause or set off a phrase; for example, "He went to town - despite my objections - and bought me roses." For informal writing, that's fine. Everybody's used to it, and ever-helpful Word will even change the hyphen to an en dash. (Word is wrong, but try telling that to Microsoft.)

As an editor, I would replace that series of "space hyphen space" with an em dash and no spaces. That's the proper way to indicate a break or pause or to set off a phrase. The sentence now reads, "He went to town—despite my objections—and bought me roses."

Where do you use the shorter (en) dash? En dashes are used in place of "to" in a series, for example, "October 2–10."

If you want to use em or en dashes, the easy way to insert them is to memorize the keystrokes for each. For em, type Alt0151. For en, type Alt0150.

Tip: (1) Never use spaces with en or em dashes. (2) Don't get too hung up on ens, ems, and hyphens unless you're writing a résumé, a college paper, or another type of formal communication.