I have some good
news for you.
English — the
language you love and depend on — has not one, not two, but three
punctuation marks in the form of horizontal lines. Control
They are — from
shorter to longer — hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—).
Here’s how to use
1. Use hyphens in
compound words and compound modifiers such as spot-check
and follow-up message.
2. Use en dashes as
interval or span marks, as in 8–9 a.m.
3. Use em dashes for
dashing effect — to indicate abrupt shifts in thought or asides —
as illustrated here.
En dashes and em
dashes were so named because they’re the length of the letters
n and m. (In the old days, letterpress printers told
the two apart by holding them beside their respective letters.)
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them. Many writers don’t know
en dashes exist, and many writers refer to em dashes simply as
“dashes.” No harm.
A few words of
advice regarding em dashes.
If the sentence
continues after the aside — as this one does — don’t forget the
second em dash. Also, to avoid confusing your reader, don’t use
more than one pair of em dashes in a single sentence. Finally,
because em dashes are showy marks, use them sparingly.
Here’s some more
Unless you’re a
professional printer or a fastidious writer, forget about en
dashes. Just use hyphens to mark your intervals, like this: 8-9
a.m. Most readers won’t notice the difference, and if they do,
they won’t care.
writers think the em dash produced by Microsoft Word is too long
and ungainly, so they use the shorter en dash in its place – like
Now for some bad
Of the three
horizontal line marks, only the hyphen appears on your keyboard.
The other two were omitted to reduce production costs and
maintenance when the typing machine was invented in the late 19th
century, so today we rely on computer technology to produce the
desired mark. Here’s how that works:
1. Create hyphens by
striking the underscore–hyphen key once, with no spaces before or
2. Create en dashes
by striking the hyphen key either once or twice – it doesn’t
matter which – with one space before and after (xx – xx),
and then go back and delete the spaces (xx–xx).
3. Create em dashes
by striking the hyphen key twice, with no spaces before or after
programs include keyboard shortcuts for creating en dashes and em
dashes. Good luck figuring those out.
complication — actually two.
Style manuals differ
on whether to use spaces before and after em dashes (the dashing
mark). The Associated Press Stylebook calls for spaces.
The Chicago Manual of Style calls for no spaces. Whichever
style you choose, be consistent throughout a document. When
writing for publication, follow the publication’s guidelines.
complication: There are actually two more dashes — 2-em dashes
(used to indicate missing letters) and 3-em dashes (used to
indicate missing words).
But I say enough is