The most flexible and versatile punctuation mark—the Em Dash
There are many ways to use dashes in writing. But it is necessary first to make the difference between a hyphen, and an em dash vs en dash.
En and em dashes are longer than the hyphen. An em dash is often used to indicate a break in thought in a sentence. The en dash is mostly used with numbers in writing.
The hyphen connects words together to show that they are related and combined.
Why are they called Em and En spaces?
An em and en are both old printers’ measures.
The size of an em space is the width of the letter M in any font size.
The en is the width of the letter N. There is also an L space, which is smaller again.
This is only for the typographical purist, but the minus symbol is slightly different from the en dash.
If you look closely, the minus symbol and en dash look very similar. However, a true en dash is slightly longer.
En dash x–x
Em dash x—x
How to punctuate with dashes and hyphens
When we use compound terms, there are three variants.
1. An open compound, in words such as dining room or lounge suite.
2. A closed compound in words like a bookshop, teacup, and policeman.
3. A hyphenated compound is used for words real-time, up-to-date, and three-year-old.
There is always discussion about the use of hyphens. In 2013, Time reported that The New York Times style manual removed the hyphen from the word e-mail and encouraged the use of email.
The use of hyphens is quite strict. But it depends on which style guide you follow.
There can sometimes be minor usage differences between American, Australian, British, and Canadian punctuation. But in all forms, putting spaces before or after a dash or hyphen is incorrect.
As well as compounds, a hyphen is always used for dates, numbers, and adjectives of age.
I was born in nineteen-fifty-six.
There are ninety-seven applicants.
I have a nine-year-old daughter.
Unlike a hyphen, you use the en dash to indicate the sense of “through to” in dates or number sequences. There are no spaces on each side of the dash.
The festival will be held 14–18th June.
Please refer to pages 117–122 for in-depth details.
The em or long dash is a writer’s favorite go-to punctuation mark.
It can—depending on the context—add emphasis, add information, bring focus, or replace commas, colons and set off parenthetical information in brackets.
You will notice that there are again, no spaces around an em dash.
Look at these examples for some inspiration.
Liver, kidney, and trotters are foods I just can’t eat.
Liver, kidney, and trotters—all foods I just can’t eat.
I was at the office, doing as little as possible as usual when I heard the fire alarms.
I was at the office—doing as little as possible as usual—when I heard the fire alarms.
Mary, Chris, and Mark attended the meeting with the boss.
The three of them—Mary, Chris, and Mark—attended the meeting with the boss.
We found the stolen dogs (all three of them) on a farm in Dover.
We found the stolen dogs—all three of them—on a farm in Dover.
After three months, the Prime Minister finally announced the government’s decision; a nasty tax increase.
After three months, the Prime Minister finally announced the government’s decision—a nasty tax increase.
Look, I’ll be there at seven-thirty. No, make it eight.
Look, I’ll be there at seven-thirty—no, make it eight.
I can’t find my car keys. Oh, there they are, on the table.
I can’t find my car keys—oh, there they are—on the table.
Multiple em dashes
You can use two em dashes to indicate that part of a word or letters in a word have been intentionally omitted.
It is used most often to hide the names of people involved in criminal proceedings, or when wanting to use expletives—without offending the reader.
The defendant, Mr. John Smith, screamed at the top of his voice and was removed from the court.
The defendant, Mr. J——, screamed at the top of his voice and was removed from the court.
I really don’t know why he uses the word bloody so often.
I really don’t know why he uses the word bl——y so often.
Have fun with em dashes
The main use of the em dash is to highlight information, which would often be enclosed in commas, parentheses, or following a semicolon.
It is a more relaxed and informal way of punctuating a sentence and much easier to use than colons and semicolons.
However, it is worth remembering that en and em dashes are not the same and have different uses.
En dash usage is quite strict. You only use it in sequences of numbers and dates.
But the em dash is extremely flexible. The only limit is your imagination and ingenuity.
Anytime to go to add a comma, a pair of brackets, or a semicolon, think again. Could an em dash add more pizzazz to your sentence?
You know—I have a feeling you might try.
Finding the four dashes in word processing for PCs and Macs
Accessing the four dash symbols depends on what computer system or word processor you are using.
For Mac users:
To type an em dash, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus key. Alternatively, an em dash can be typed with a double hyphen by pressing the Hyphen key twice and then press Space.
To type an en dash, hold down the Option key and press the Minus key.
For Microsoft Word Windows users:
It is not as simple as on a Mac.
You need to use the minus sign on numeric keypads. If you use the hyphen character on the alphanumeric keypad, Word will change the cursor.
Hold down the Alt key and type 0151 on the numeric keypad. Choose Symbol from the Insert menu, click the Special Characters tab, highlight the em dash or en dash, and click Insert
Alternatives for Windows users:
How to insert Unicode characters in Word?
To insert an ASCII or Unicode character, press and hold down ALT while typing the character code. For example, to insert the em dash (—) symbol, press and hold down ALT while typing 2014 on the numeric keypad. You must use the numeric keypad to type the numbers and not the keyboard.
Hyphen – Unicode 2010
Minus – Unicode 2212
En dash – Unicode 2013
Em dash – Unicode 2014
Related reading: The Hyphen Is Disappearing But We Still Need The Little Dash