Thursday, September 07, 2006

What is the difference between an "en" dash and an "em" dash, and what is the correct spacing around them?

Who's asking: E., a potential client

"Em" and "en" are typesetters' references to the space taken up by the letter m and the letter n. An "em" dash takes up two spaces (--) and an "en" dash takes up one (-).

An em dash is what we think of as a dash, and an en dash is a hyphen. Hyphens occur within or between linked words, and do not take a space on either side (e.g., cross-dressing, hara-kiri). Dashes are punctuation marks used to indicate a sharp break, set off a series, provide additional information, or make a side comment. They don't belong in formal writing, and I overuse them myself; a semi-colon, a colon, or a set of parentheses is usually more appropriate.

Traditional typesetting uses no space before or after a dash. AP style, which I prefer, uses spaces before and after a dash. As I told my potential client, many word-processing and publishing programs have their own default settings. What's important is to choose one style, and stick to it.

It's another gray, rainy day here in central Maine. Dad's staying with me for a few days, which makes Dizzy happy; he thinks we should always have company.


Anonymous said...

"... an en dash is a hyphen"

Actually, an en dash is longer than a hyphen. It's primary uses are to denote ranges (1945-1950) and to show equality between descriptions (writer-editor). When used in ranges, the en dash is read as "to." When used in descriptions, the en dash isn't read as anything.

But only seriously persinkety types like me even know there's a difference between en dash and a hyphen. No one will ever raise a stink if hyphens are used as en dashes.

And, yes, I did look up the spelling of "persnickety."


Anonymous said...

True, en dashes and hyphens aren't the same beast. The en dash is also used to separate open compounds, as in "the New York—Boston flight," where at least one of the elements is a proper noun containing more than one word. (I don't think you can actually type an en dash in the comment box, so this'll have to be taken on faith.) "The Chicago-Boston flight," however, just uses a plain old hyphen, since each proper noun is a single word.

There are also 2-em dashes and 3-em dashes, and they have particular functions as well. I won't bore you with those, though. Too late? Uh-oh.

Heck of a pedantic first comment. I do love your blog, though, and I'm glad you're back from hiatus.

AnswerGirl said...

Well, this is the thing -- the fact that you can't type an en dash. Fashions come and go in punctuation as in everything else. The triumph of electronic printing over hot type means that the difference between the en dash and the hyphen is quickly disappearing.

And when the underlying concern is about how to prepare an electronically-printed manuscript for submission to agents and publishers, the author has far more important things to worry about than em vs. en dashes.

Bill, was that second comment from you? Sign your comments, people...

Anonymous said...

No, I'm not Bill. I'm not even the right gender to be a Bill. I just don't have an identity (how sad that sounds), and I don't have time to screw around getting one right now.

You probably can type an en dash in here. Is this one: – ? I won't know till I click "submit."

I sort of disagree that the triumph of electronic printing limits the use of special characters. In fact, I think it's the reverse. I see tons of manuscripts, and writers are absolutely in love with the possibility that's opened up for the use of arcane Icelandic diacriticals, or having characters wear T-shirts that say "I Heart My Labradoodle," using a real heart in text instead of the word, or plugging in a gazillion other typographic pyrotechnics. So I kind of think that it's just the lack of knowledge about how to use certain marks that impedes their usage, not the inability to type them.

And I'm constantly surprised by what authors do and don't worry about. But it could be that a particular author has me feeling very cranky today.

Madley said...

Great discussion! I finally understand the difference between the two and the "space in between" issue.

Best advice though was to pick one style and stick with it! Thanks :)

AnswerGirl said...

I cede the point about the en dash vs. the hyphen, and Anonymous is probably also right about the new opportunities that electronic dingbats present to old-fashioned ones. Thank goodness I don't see many manuscripts like that. My own word-processing software allows me to throw in the occasional Greek or Russian phrase, which I appreciate because I am an insufferable show-off (if you hadn't noticed).

Anonymous, sorry I thought you were Bill -- he runs an excellent copy-editing website (, which I consult whenever I feel confused on these matters.

mernitman said...

en-triguing... late to the party (again) but just wanted to say i love your new blog concept. will you be accepting questions posed by readers as possible post-fodder?

AnswerGirl said...

But of course! Ask away...

KaneCitizen said...

Plus, both are important Scrabble words!

AnswerGirl said...

I delete anonymous comments, even when they're correct. Sorry.

SMagnusR94 said...

You can type an en dash (–) by pressing ALT-0150 (the numbers need entered with the number-pad). To further convey that the dashes are different—here is an is a hyphen consecutively after an en dash (no grammatical meaning): "–-".

Also, you can type an em dash with ALT-0151. I typed one between "different" and "here." It seems shorter than one would normally be but I think that's just the format, because it is longer than hyphens and en dashes: "— –-" (it was hard to tell where the em dash and en dash started when put together consecutively.