Aug 28, 2016

The Dirt on Dashes

Ever wonder if you’ve got all the dirt you need on dashes? If you’re serious about writing or do it for a living, it pays to know your en dashes from your ems — and which ones to use for what. The Associated Press doesn’t specify the en versus the em, so hopefully this guide will help you choose which dash is right for you.

But first things first…

The Hyphen (-)

All dashes start out as hyphens. The hyphen is a little line that looks like a minus symbol and lives in the top right corner of the keyboard. (Don’t worry, hyphens will get their own post soon.) To turn your hyphens into em dashes, use this key combination: option (alt on PC) + shift + hyphen. For en dashes, use this: option (alt on PC) + hyphen.

Some people combine two or three hyphens to make dashes — a holdover from typewriters — and Microsoft Word helps perpetuate this wrong by automatically converting them into single dashes. But other programs, like blogging platforms, don’t. If you make it a habit to type them the correct way, you’ll always get the same results, no matter where you’re doing your typing.

The Em Dash ( — )

The em dash is named after a unit of measurement in typography. Traditionally, it’s equal in size to a metal font’s point size, which is determined by the height of the letters in the font. So an em in a 12-point typeface would be 12 points wide. It’s also typically the same width as a capital “M” in that same font.

The em dash is used:

  • To indicate dialogue, instead of quotes
  • To indicate unordered lists in news stories
  • To indicate where letters are missing (“This blog post is sh — !”)
  • To indicate where words are missing (“This — — is short!”)
  • In place of commas or parentheses, to emphasize parenthetical content; or to help clarify the beginning and end of a parenthetical section when it also contains a bunch of commas
  • In place of a colon, to add emphasis
  • In place of a semicolon, to put emphasis to the second clause
  • To show a sudden change of thought, especially in dialogue or narrative
The En Dash (–)

This dash is so named because it’s half the width of the em. Hyphens often get substituted for en dashes, but they aren’t the same thing — the en is slightly longer.

The en dash is used:

  • To indicate a range (pages 300–309, Open Mon–Fri, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.)
  • To list joint authors for books and publications (Bose–Einstein paper)
  • Show a contrast or connection between two words (conservative–liberal split; Italian–American reciprocity)
  • As a “super hyphen,” indicating that an invisible hyphen exists after the second word in a hyphenated series (post–high school education, instead of post-high-school education)

Also, some typographers and writers think the em dash is too long and distracting, choosing to use the en dash with spaces on either end. The Chicago Manual of Style prefers the em over the en, but with no spaces between it and the letters. AP Style doesn’t specify en or em, only “dash,” leaving it up to the writer to pick a preference — but it always includes spaces.

The important thing is readability, and being consistent is a big step in the right direction. In fact, regardless of what overall style guide you subscribe to — Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press, American Psychological Association, etc. — there’s one thing they agree on above all else: Always be consistent.

This list probably isn’t exhaustive, but it will get you started if you weren’t already there. Hopefully it will at least give you some things to think about. And maybe, just maybe, all of this dash knowledge will even help you hit pay dirt.