What is the Difference Between an Em Dash and an En Dash?

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Dash Comparing all  dashes together

A dash is a punctuation mark that is similar in appearance to a hyphen. Two of the most common versions of a dash are the en dash (–) and them em dash (—). There are many different uses for the en dash, em dash and hyphen but there are still a lot of writers who do not use each mark correctly. Taking the time to learn the differences between the three symbols will help to improve the professional appearance of any writing.

What is an Em Dash?

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What is an Em Dash? Image by slidetodoc.com

Also known as an ‘m dash’ or ‘m rule’, the em dash gets its name because it is roughly the width of the letter ‘m’ and is used in a similar way to a colon. It can show an abrupt change or pause in thought, but where a full stop is too strong or a comma is too weak. It can be used to indicate that a sentence is unfinished because the speaker has been interrupted.

Em dashes are mainly used in informal writing as opposed to formal writing. In informal writing an em dash can be used instead of a comma, semicolon, ellipsis or even parentheses. The em dash can show added emphasis to a word, instead of using bold or caps.

Examples

  • When used to show interrupted speech: “I wasn’t going to—” “But you did do it!”
  • When used instead of parentheses: The whole group had attended—even Matt and Rebecca— and I knew it was going to be a great night
  • When used to show an abrupt change in thought: “I wish we would be able to—oh, don’t worry about it”

What is an En Dash?

The Dash in English
What is an En Dash? Image by 7esl.com

The en dash, similar to the em dash, gets its name because it is roughly the size of the letter ‘n’. The en dash is much shorter than the em dash but still longer than the hyphen. Most commonly the en dash is used to contrast values or to illustrate a relationship between two things. It can also be used to show a period of time.

Examples

  • Father–son relationship
  • New York–London Flight
  • The age group ranged from 6–10 years.
  • The event rant from March–April
  • It was located on the North American–Canadian border

What is a Hyphen?

hyphen
What is a Hyphen? Image by mchillediting.wordpress.com

A hyphen is the punctuation mark that is most commonly used rather than An em dash or an en dash, but the symbol conveys an entirely different meaning and has a very different purpose. It is most commonly used to hyphenate a word, in other terms to simply join two words. There are also many other uses for the hyphen.

Examples

  • For the hyphenation of words such as co-ordination
  • For a hyphenated surname such as Mary Smith-Jones
  • When spelling out a word in dialogue, “The word spelled out F-R-E-E.”

How to Type an Em Dash or an En Dash

One of the reasons that the en dash or em dash may be underused is because they do not have their own key on a keyboard. To create an em dash in Microsoft Word, hold down ALT and type 0151 on the numpad. To create an en dash in Microsoft Word, hold down ALT and type 0150 on the numpad. The hyphen has its own keyboard key, located above the letter ‘p’ on the keyboard.

Other than using the above method, Microsoft Word will also recognise that an en dash is required when typing a space then a hyphen and another space and continuing on with a sentence. To create an em dash this way, type two hyphens with no space before the hyphens and continue typing.

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