The problem with Em, En and Hyphen

Created on Tuesday, October 25, 2005.
Filed under .

Em, En and Hyphen don’t get along in this sick world of desktop publishing.

For instance, did you know there are actually three dash characters in the English language (not counting the minus symbol, which is a math operator)? I’ll bet you didn’t. Let’s go through them all, including the minus.


Your trusty and oft-maligned friend the hyphen is near the top of your keyboard. It’s this convenient position that has made it so ubiquitous in modern print, and it’s also why so many people use it incorrectly.

A hyphen is used for one purpose: joining words. That’s it. You do not use it as a minus symbol. You do not use it to stand in for other types of dashes or to indicate a range. The hyphen is for hyphenating. Understand this very well.

En dash

An En dash is by definition the width of the uppercase letter N in the typeface. This is bad for us though, because since most people haven’t even heard of an En dash very few fonts actually get the width of an En dash right. Very often, and very irritatingly, the font artist renders the En dash in the same width as a hyphen, or even not at all.

The En dash is used to indicate a range between dates, numbers or places. For example:

  • The Liverpool–Cabramatta line
  • 1943–1977
  • 12–20 years old

Using a hyphen to indicate a range looks wrong because the hyphen is not wide enough:

  • The Liverpool-Cabramatta line
  • 1943-1977
  • 12-20 years old

The En dash is also used to join words where one part is an already-hyphenated noun. For example:

  • Random-generator–support (here ‘Random generator–support’ would mean something different)

Note that in common phrases and hyphenated names you always use a hyphen: ne'er-do-well, good-for-nothing, Miss Kingsford-Smith-James-Baker.

You can also use an En dash to cite two or more people who contributed to the same work: the Zimbardo–Lewin report.

Em dash

The Em dash is my best friend. It’s used to show a break in thought:

“Billy-Bob McDuvet…braced himself for what was to be another icy day — had the weather in the steppes always been this cold?”

The Em dash is also used to show a range that hasn’t ended yet, most often to show that a person is still alive:

  • Billy-Bob McDuvet: 1953 —

We can also use a Em dash to substitute for missing letters or numbers, such as when censoring coarse language or guessing at dates:

  • You give me the sh — ts, man.
  • Requiem: circa 178 —

Three adjacent Em dashes ( — — — ) are used when you want to refer to the same person many times in a bibliography or list of composers, or when an entire word is missing from a passage. If a big chunk is missing it would be best to use an ellipsis.


A minus sign is not a language dash: it is only for doing maths. You can’t use a hyphen because a hyphen is too narrow and very difficult to see. To wit:


And that’s all I have to say about dashes. Soon I’ll be having a go at the quote and apostrophe symbols our keyboards put out by default. Believe it or not, they’re also terribly wrong. In the meantime, practice your dashes, people!

New: The problem with Em, En and Hyphen (this article)
In keeping with my latest bout of ‘typographilia’ I’m going to try to make the site fit all the conventions of traditional printed work. Look out for outdenting, hanging punctuation, non-boxed list bullets and new-paragraph indentation!
Writer’s Block v3․2 is out now, with tools to help you correctly punctuate your way to being a typographically-correct bad boy. Or girl. Rawrr!

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2018.