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En dash vs. em dash is one of the trickiest punctuation issues there is.
They look very similar and are sometimes used for the same purpose (depending on what style guide you use).
Below I explain what each dash is used for, provide examples, and show you how to create these marks in different word processors.
(Please note that I used The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) as my reference guide unless otherwise noted.)
What is an en dash used for?
The main purpose of an en dash (–) is to connect inclusive dates and numbers. It essentially means “to” or “through.”
Although it means through or to, if the word from precedes the number range, the word through or to should be used instead of an en dash. And if the word between precedes the number range, the word and should be used instead of the en dash.
She works from 9 to 5; what a way to make a living.
Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. each day is blocked out for Murder She Wrote.
An en dash can also be used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one part of the construction is an open compound.
En dash examples
You’re probably thinking, “Rules are all well and good, but how do you use an en dash in a sentence?”
Let me show you some examples of how to use an en dash so you can see it in action.
Read chapters 5–13 of The Chicago Manual of Style if you want to become a grammar guru.
September 4–11 is reserved for the annual Word Nerds Unite festival. (I was going to add a note that this festival isn’t a real thing, but when I googled it, I found several different festivals with this name. How cool is that!)
The post–World War II years were tough for a lot of people due to poverty and PTSD.
When should I use an em dash?
Now that we know what an en dash is used for, let’s move on to the em dash.
The em dash (—) is much more versatile than the en dash.
Em dashes can be used at the end of a sentence or in pairs to draw attention to parenthetical information or additional “that is” thoughts within a sentence.
Em dashes can replace a comma where a comma doesn’t provide a strong enough break.
They can also be used in place of parentheses. Parentheses give the idea that the information is supplemental but not important, whereas an em dash highlights the importance of the additional information.
Warning: Beware of using hyphens in place of em dashes. Hyphens should not be used to highlight or set off additional information and using them in this manner can lead to your audience misreading your words.
An em dash may be used to signify a sudden break or interruption in dialogue.
Em dashes are also sometimes used as bullet points in a vertical list in informal writing.
There are some other less well-known uses for the em dash; for example, the 2-em dash and the 3-em dash.
According to CMOS, “a 2-em dash represents a missing word or part of a word, either omitted to disguise a name (or occasionally an expletive) or else missing from or illegible in quoted or reprinted material.”
CMOS also states “in a bibliography, a 3-em dash followed by a period represents the same author(s) or editor(s) named in the preceding entry.”
Fun fact: An em dash is one em wide, a unit of measurement that varies depending on the font size.
Em dash examples
Miss America is hoping for world peace—or so she says!
As long as I have three things in my pantry—bread, chocolate, and ice cream—all is right in the world.
Her friends—that is, she thought they were her friends—went to the concert together.
British usage vs. American usage
Usage of dashes can vary between British English and American English.
Fun fact: The en dash is called the en rule in British English, and the em dash is called the em rule.
According to CMOS, “in British usage, an en dash (with space before and after) is usually preferred to the em dash as punctuation in running text.”
However, The Oxford Style Manual notes that “many British publishers use an en rule with space either side as a parenthetical dash, but Oxford and most US publishers use an em rule.”
So both CMOS and The Oxford Style Manual advocate using a closed-up em dash to set off parenthetical information, but some British publishers may use spaced en dashes instead.
Consistency is key when deciding which style you’re going to follow!
Spacing of en dashes and em dashes
As mentioned above, CMOS and Oxford recommend using no spaces with an em dash or an en dash.
AP Style recommends putting a space before and after the em dash.
Can I create an en dash or em dash on a keyboard?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an em dash symbol or an en dash symbol on a keyboard.
However, there are a couple of ways you can create them, which may differ slightly depending on if you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
In Microsoft Word, click on Insert → Symbol → More Symbols.
Click on the Special Characters tab, and choose whichever dash you want to use. Click Insert, and then click Close.
Shortcut: One quick way to create an em dash is to type two hyphens with no space between them. The two hyphens will convert to an em dash on both Macs and PCs. However, not all computers are the same, so this may not work for you.
Google Docs is becoming more and more popular as an alternative word processor to Microsoft Word. So how do you type an en dash in Google Docs?
From the main menu, click on Insert → Special characters.
Type en or em into the search bar, depending on which one you want to use. Then X out of the special characters box.
Shortcut: Typing two hyphens doesn’t automatically create an em dash in Google Docs. However, you can add a shortcut to your preferences.
First, add an en or em dash to your document as described above. Then click on Tools → Preferences.
Click on Substitutions. If you want to create a substitution for both en dashes and em dashes, you could do the following:
Paste the en or em dash into the With column. Make sure your substitution is ticked. Click OK.
En dash vs. em dash quiz
Can you spot any errors in the use of en dashes or em dashes in the below sentences? (Based on CMOS recommendations outlined in this blog post.)
Use the knowledge you’ve learned above and try not to peek at the answers below!
- Between 1–3 inches of rainfall fell last night.
- Barack Obama was president of the United States from 2009—2017.
- Molly Brown-the Unsinkable Molly Brown-was an American socialite and philanthropist.
- A Nobel Prize-winning author is going to be at the party, and I want to meet her!
- You’re not welcome here – leave now!
Final thoughts on en dash vs. em dash
I hope you have a better understanding of the differences between en dashes vs. em dashes now.
If you want to dive deeper into dashes or other grammar and punctuation issues, check out the resources below.
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- Between 1 and 3 inches of rainfall fell last night. (If between precedes the number range, use and instead of an em dash.)
- Barack Obama was president of the United States from 2009 to 2017. (If from precedes the number range, use to instead of an em dash.)
- Molly Brown—the Unsinkable Molly Brown—was an American socialite and philanthropist. (Hyphens should not be used in place of em dashes.)
- A Nobel Prize–winning author is going to be at the party, and I want to meet her! (An en dash should be used with open compounds.)
- You’re not welcome here—leave now! (CMOS recommends using a closed-up em dash.)