A Dash of En-Dash

There are two types of people in this world: those that have a complete spice rack in the kitchen and those that have a bottle of all-purpose seasoning on the dining table. Likewise, what people call a dash is actually an en-dash, em-dash, or a hyphen. To be clear, this post has nothing to do with Mrs. Dash.

Hyphens

Most of us think of a hyphen when we think of the word “dash”. They join compound words together like toll-free call. Since English can be nasty at times, hyphens are also used with prefixes, when that would create another word that already exists, but has different meaning.

Since that’s confusing, here’s an example:

“retreat” - as in war:
“We have to retreat, the calvary is attacking!”

“re-treat” - as in medicine:
“I’m going to re-treat him with antibiotics”

In the realm of computers, a hyphen is the same as a minus sign. Not to bring back those traumatic memories of High School mathematics.

En Dash

An en dash separates two units of measure; replacing “to” or “through”:

  • Read pages 30–42 (pages 30 to 42)
  • For ages 3–5 (ages 3 through 5)
  • 12:30–3 p.m. (12:30 to 3 p.m.)

En-dashes are slightly longer than a hyphen, and usually match the width of an “n” in the font you use.

Em Dash

Em-dashes are usually double the width of an en-dash. Historically they’ve been interchangeable with colons:

There are three types of dashes: hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes.

There are three types of dashes—hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes.

Within books, they show an interruption or a pause:

ME: “But I’m trying to tell you—”
YOU: “I don’t care about your dash nonsense!”

Use two em-dashes show deliberate redaction:

“The worse thing about censorship is ——”

Lastly, em-dashes can be used in quotation attribution:

There are two types of people in this world: those that have a complete spice rack in the kitchen and those that have a bottle of all-purpose seasoning on the dining table.

—Timothy Keith

A note on spaces

While it’s grammatically incorrect to use spaces with hyphens, it’s perfectly allowable to add spaces before and after an en dash or em dash. Most word processors are set by default to adding spaces:

12:30–3 p.m.

2:30 – 3 p.m.