We covered dot dot dot dash last week. Here comes dash dash!
Whatchoo talkin’ about, John Anthony Gillis? This doodad: – If you’re not used to looking for the difference, you might think it’s a hyphen, but it’s not. It’s a teensy bit bigger.
When to use it: The primary use of an en dash is to indicate a number range. The next most common use is to indicate some other kind of range, like a route from one location to another or a time span represented in words. After that, there are some style-specific uses, such as in the names of university campuses.
When not to use it: Don’t mistake it for a hyphen. Also, depending on the style you’re using (as dictated by a publisher or journal, or if you’re just blogging or producing copy for your own use), there will be a particular way you’re supposed to use dashes for setting off pieces of text. Most use em dashes (coming up next), but some use en dashes. If you’re using a style that requires an em dash for that, then an en dash isn’t interchangeable.
How to be an overachiever: Simply knowing the proper use of an en dash at all kind of puts you in the overachievement zone. But to create an en dash in Word, hit Opt-[hyphen] on a Mac or Alt-01-1-5-0 on the keypad if you're in Windows. As another option, Word will automatically transform a pair of hyphens into an en dash so long as you use the following sequence: [word] [space] [hyphen] [hyphen] [space] [word].
Whatchoo talkin’ about, Thrillus in Manilus? One of these: — It is visibly longer than the en dash we already covered.
When to use it: Use it in pairs for setting off “parenthetical” comments (not all parenthetical comments require actual parentheses). That’s the major use. The secondary use is to set off a related clause at the end of a sentence that requires emphasis of some kind. I call this secondary because we’re talking about academic writing, and that sort of thing should be used sparingly in such genres.
The parenthetical use, however, is common in this material. When you use it this way, just make sure you remember to use em dashes at both ends of the clause:
Ex.: The em dashes—the punctuation flanking this section of text in the middle—usually come in pairs.
When not to use it: Don’t use it when a hyphen or en dash is called for. Fortunately, this one doesn’t get used when it shouldn’t be all that commonly.
How to be an overachiever: The big bonus when it comes to em dash use is recognizing the fact that there are no spaces before and after each dash in most styles that use it. I know, it looks crowded. I know. Resist the urge to create spaces. You can do it, I’m confident in you.
To create this type of dash in Microsoft Word, hit Opt-Shift-[hyphen] on a Mac of Alt-0-1-5-1 on the keypad if you're in Windows. Alternatively, if you type two hyphens in between a pair of words with no spaces anywhere in between, Word will transform the hyphens into an em dash (unless you've disabled it from doing so).
To sum up
Once again, here are the punctuation marks we've covered in this post and the previous one:
Ellipsis: . . .
En dash: –
Em dash: --
So . . . I hope this intro was helpful for writers ages 10–110 and beyond. If you feel you are well-informed—as I'm sure you are—then happy punctuating!
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.