CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author


Dashes are not hyphens, though some people will mistakenly describe a hyphen as a dash. In my article on hyphens, I explain how they are used in prefixes, compound adjectives, suspended hyphens, numbers, ages, compounding forms and stacked modifiers. These areas are widely accepted as purely the realm of the hyphen, not the dash.

A dash is a punctuation mark with the appearance of a slightly longer hyphen. Dashes come in two forms, the em-dash or em-rule and en-dash or en-rule.

En-dash or en-rule

The en-dash is named after its length, which is that of either the lower or upper-case ‘n’ in that particular font. It is used to indicate a span of time, distance or age and also differentiation where the words and or to could stand. For example:

The US–Mexico border (and)

The nine o’clock Sydney–Melbourne flight (to)

The September–October period (to)

It’s a father–son thing (and)

Suitable for ages 10–12 (to)

The score was 2–1 at halftime (to)

I work 6:30–11:30pm (to)

While some of these examples permit the use of a hyphen as well as a matter of personal style, compound surnames use only the hyphen, not the en-dash.

Em-dash or em-rule

The em-dash is also named after its length, either the lower or upper-case ‘m’ in the designated font. It has the honour of separating asides in a sentence, making a distinction between fragments of a sentence, demonstrating an interruption in speech and labelling.

Here is an example of using them in asides.

It was not as though I hated oranges—in fact, they were one of my favourite fruits—but my tummy was feeling a bit fragile, so I decided not to eat one.

The em-dash can also be used to separate fragments of a sentence, for example:

Daggers, bows, knives—they were her specialty.

They can also be used to express an interruption in a section of direct speech in narrative prose. For example:

‘The teacher we had today was absolutely—’

‘Mental?’ Tim suggested.

When the speech returns, an em-dash can also be used.

‘The teacher we had today was absolutely—’

‘Mental?’ Tim suggested.

‘—lovely,’ Sally concluded.

Another use of the em-dash would be omitting the remainder of a word for secrecy’s sake.

Mrs S— was the offender’s second victim.

Finally, an em-dash is also widely used to label a quotation.

‘I am a lover of truth, a worshiper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance.’ — Stephen Fry


The examples above demonstrate how the em and en-dashes can be used. However, like many rules in English, there are variations to the supposed norm. Some are personal styles and others bend the existing rules for the sake of clarity.

The en-dash is still accepted as an alternative in the expression of an aside and separation of sentence fragments, though the em-dash is more widely used. An en-dash in an aside:

Daggers, bows, knives–they were her specialty.

While the examples previously show the em-dash being used without a space on either side (what is referred to as a closed em-dash), it is still acceptable to include spaces (open em-dash) in the demonstration of asides and section separation. For example:

It was not as though I hated oranges — in fact, they were one of my favourite fruits — but my tummy was feeling a bit fragile, so I decided not to eat one.

Daggers, bows, knives — they were her specialty.

Until recently, I preferred using the open em-dash. Though I still believe the spaces are necessary for both aesthetic and functional reasons, sometimes conforming to the evolution of style is the more sensible course of action, especially if, like me, you are writing for a modern audience.

Note that I used an open or spaced em-dash in my quote from Stephen Fry. Either a spaced or non-spaced em-dash can be used here, though the space after the quotation mark should be maintained as a matter of clarity and neatness.

Also, a space should not be used for expressing an interruption regardless of whether you use open or closed em-dashes.


Mac users:

en-dash = ‘option’ + ‘-‘

em-dash = ‘option’ + ‘shift’ + ‘-‘

PC users:

en-dash = ‘alt’ + ‘0150’ on the numpad

OR ‘ctrl’ + ‘-‘ on the numpad

em-dash = ‘alt’ + ‘0151’ on the numpad

OR ‘ctrl’ + ‘alt’ + ‘-‘ on the numpad

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